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Race for Democratic Leader Entering Its Final Stage

Times Staff Writer

Except for the higher quality of the bagels at breakfast, the regional Democratic National Committee meeting here over the weekend might have been a gathering of Iowa Democrats in the weeks before their kickoff presidential caucus last year.

Receptions in stuffy hotel rooms, earnest young staffers rushing through crowded hallways with furtive purpose, activists sporting buttons and stickers that proclaim their allegiances: The weekend had all the claustrophobic bustle of a county convention overrun with White House hopefuls.

All of this campaigning, though, was for a contest that had traditionally unfolded with far less fuss: the race for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee.

Like seemingly everything else in political life, the race has grown more elaborate, extended and expensive. It now resembles either a high school class election on steroids or a matchbox presidential campaign.

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The seven candidates seeking the job -- a group headlined by former presidential contender Howard Dean -- has spent the last several weeks trooping to regional Democratic forums around the country, holding fundraisers to build campaign treasuries that exceed $200,000, juggling demands from influential interest groups and deluging the 447 voting DNC members with calls pursuing their vote.

The fundamental question confronting the DNC, which will pick the chairman at its Feb. 12 meeting, even resembles the basic choice facing Iowa Democrats at the outset of 2004: Do they trust Dean as a leader of the party?

The behind-the-scenes anxiety about Dean probably equals the public support he has generated. But even some of his opponents grudgingly concede that the former Vermont governor is likely to win the four-year term unless key players in the party unify behind one of the alternatives.

The contest is expected to head into its final stage today, when the Assn. of State Democratic Chairs will hold a conference call to determine if it can unite most of its members behind one of the candidates.

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The group’s executive committee interviewed the seven candidates Sunday morning and met privately later in the day to determine if it could reach a consensus to recommend that the full membership endorse one candidate. Late Sunday, Donnie Fowler, one of the seven candidates, released a statement saying the state chairs executive committee had voted to endorse him, although officials would not confirm the decision.

Because some of the state chairmen have endorsed different candidates, no one involved expects every member of the group to back a single contender today. But many of those involved in the race believe the chairs’ decision will determine the finalists in the contest, partly because many other key players -- including organized labor, governors and individual DNC members -- have been waiting for the chairs to act before committing.

Despite all the activity, the race has unfolded slowly, partly because the state chairs have asked DNC members not to commit until they complete their own process. Fewer than 100 of the voting DNC members have endorsed a candidate, with Dean holding about half of those, much more than any of his rivals.

That still leaves them all well short of the votes they need: Under party rules, the winning candidate must draw more than 50% of the voting members -- which would be at least 224. If no one crosses that threshold on the first ballot, the voting continues until someone does.

Even with the unusually large field, none of the candidates fits the profile of the insider-fundraiser-lobbyist-operator that has usually filled the top job in both parties, a description that aptly fits the outgoing chairman, Terry McAuliffe, a premier Democratic fundraiser for about two decades.

The contenders all have promised to compete in every state and to match the technological sophistication of the Republican campaigns (which the candidates presented Saturday as far outpacing the Democrats). The hopefuls diverge less in their proposals than their qualifications.

The field includes two centrist former U.S. representatives: Martin Frost of Texas and Timothy J. Roemer of Indiana. Roemer also served on the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Most observers considered Frost the most likely to emerge as Dean’s principal competitor, but he hasn’t set off sparks of enthusiasm. Roemer, although encouraged to enter the race by the Democratic congressional leadership, has struggled to attract support, largely because of his opposition to abortion and his vote for President Bush’s 2001 tax cut; at the candidate forum here Saturday, he drew hisses over his abortion views.

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Two young party technicians -- Fowler, the field director for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential race, and Simon Rosenberg, the president of the centrist New Democrat Network -- have won good reviews for their ideas about reviving the party. Both have faced doubts about their experience, although Fowler would receive a huge boost if the full membership of the state chairs group follows its executive committee’s apparent decision and votes to endorse him today.

Former Ohio Democratic Chairman David Leland and former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, the only African American in the contest, have drawn limited support.

But Dean, inescapably, is the central figure defining the race.

As he did in his presidential campaign, Dean is drawing support from those who believe he will energize the Democratic base and kindle more activism, especially among the young.

But he faces concern on both ideological and temperamental grounds. Some Democrats worry that selecting Dean would send precisely the wrong message to culturally conservative voters who were key to Bush’s victory in November.

Skeptics are also concerned that Dean will use the chairmanship to establish himself as a competing voice to the party’s elected officials. Among some party insiders listening closely, he raised eyebrows and anxieties Saturday when he suggested that as chairman he would feel free to criticize Democrats who veered from the dominant party position on several key issues.

“To put pressure on somebody from the Midwest for voting a certain way in a conservative state ... is a mistake, and we shouldn’t do that -- except for four or five issues that are absolutely critical,” Dean said.

The fear that Dean won’t accept the party leader’s traditionally subordinate role on issues is probably the biggest hurdle he faces. In an interview Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry defended Dean against charges that he was too liberal but added that Democrats in Congress were “not looking for a spokesperson in the chairmanship.”

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Some senior Democratic operatives say unease about a Dean chairmanship is widespread among congressional leaders and many governors. But almost none of those grumbling privately have expressed their concerns publicly -- in part, some believe, because they fear crossing the ardent grass-roots, Internet-activist community still backing Dean.

That’s left it to the party chairs to decide whether they will effectively anoint Dean with an endorsement today -- or mobilize a last-ditch effort to stop him.


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