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Dean’s Zeal Is Looking Like Zealotry, Some Fear

Times Staff Writer

When Howard Dean was chosen to head their party, Democrats looked forward to the benefits of his bristling energy and zest for political combat.

But at a private meeting Thursday on Capitol Hill, a number of worried Senate Democrats warned Dean that he had been going overboard and needed to choose his words more carefully.

The former Vermont governor and unsuccessful presidential candidate recently referred to the GOP as “pretty much a white, Christian party” and declared that a lot of Republicans have “never made an honest living in their lives.”

Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) said that at the Capitol Hill meeting, “there couldn’t be any doubt that there was some concern, even by Dean himself,” about how his comments had been received.

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The meeting had been scheduled to discuss party strategy before Dean’s controversial comments.

Also Thursday, two Democrats seen as rising stars -- Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee and Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner -- made a point of distancing themselves from Dean’s remarks.

Ford, who plans a Senate run next year, said on the Don Imus radio show that if Dean could not “temper his comments, it may get to the point where the party may need to look elsewhere for leadership, because he does not speak for me.”

Ford later told The Times that Dean was “leading us in a direction that makes it difficult to win.... His leadership right now is not serving any of us very well.”

Warner, who has been mentioned as a possible 2008 presidential candidate, said Dean was using “not the kind of tone that I would use, not the kind of tone a lot of the Democratic governors in mostly Republican states are using to get elected or to govern.” Warner made his comments at a luncheon at The Times’ Washington bureau.

After the meeting on Capitol Hill, Senate Democrats expressed continuing support for Dean, who was elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee in February.

“Every single one of us has stuck our foot in our mouths at one point in our public careers, and we’ve paid for it the next day,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.).

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said that although she didn’t agree with Dean’s recent comments, she considered him an effective party chairman.

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“That is why the Republicans are so relentlessly going after him,” she said.

The flap demonstrates Democrats’ conflict over how sharply party leaders should express themselves after the party’s 2004 election losses.

“We really don’t have a message right now,” Ford lamented.

Dean is no stranger to controversy.

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His strong opposition to the Iraq war helped him emerge as the initial front-runner in the race for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, but his candidacy faded after a series of verbal gaffes.

He was especially hurt by his overheated concession speech after finishing third in the Iowa caucuses.

When Dean sought the party chairmanship, he attracted support with speeches that fiercely attacked President Bush and the Republican Party. He has continued such pugnacity since becoming chairman, but it was his recent remarks that heightened concern among Democrats.

Dean, in a speech Monday in San Francisco, said Republicans were “not very friendly to different kinds of people. They are a pretty monolithic party.... It’s pretty much a white, Christian party.”

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A recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that 82% of Republicans identified themselves as white Christians. For Democrats, the figure was 57%. Given those findings, some people defended Dean’s comment. But many criticized it as divisive.

Christian Coalition President Roberta Combs said in a statement: “Howard Dean, when he was elected chairman, promised to reach out to all the states that voted for President Bush in last year’s election. Disparaging Christians is not the smartest way to do this.”

Democrats who believed they lost votes last year on values-related issues worried that Dean’s comments would give Republicans an opening to portray Democrats as -- as one congressional Democratic aide put it -- a “godless party.”

That aide, who requested anonymity, also said Dean’s comment that a lot of Republicans “never made an honest living in their lives,” which Dean made in a speech in Washington last week, could hurt Democratic efforts to win support from middle-class Republicans.

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said on her way into the Capitol Hill meeting with Dean that he “ought to stick to organization, raising funds and supporting Democrats, rather than creating friction and splitting the party.” She added that she would advise Dean to “cool it.”

A Feinstein spokesman said after the meeting that the senator had expressed her concerns to Dean, but in a more diplomatic way.

Among those who expressed their concerns to Dean at the meeting were Democrats from states carried by President Bush.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), up for reelection next year, said that he cautioned Dean “not to get caught up in the Washington game of political polarization.”

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Dean’s response was, “Thank you,” Nelson said.

Dean declined to speak with reporters after the meeting. While walking away briskly, he said he planned to be “focusing on the future.”

Political analysts agreed that Dean’s recent comments could hurt Democrats. “Every time he makes an outrageous remark, other Democratic leaders have to answer questions about it,” said John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. “So instead of talking about their best issues, they’re talking about their loose cannon.

“He’s throwing them off message.”

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Don Kettl, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist, added: “The Democrats wanted Dean in part because he showed how to raise huge sums of money on the Internet -- and because he was a live wire who could energize the party. But high-current wires can sometimes cause painful shocks too.”

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said he didn’t think Dean’s comments were helpful to the party. But he noted, as did a number of other Democratic senators, that Dean was still new to his job as chairman and had been accustomed to speaking his mind as a governor and presidential candidate.

“This is a learning process,” he said. If Dean were to continue to make the sort of comments he has made recently, Biden said, “he might find himself in a real difficult situation. But I think you’ll see him be a little more careful in how he phrases things. Do I think this has caused long-term damage for the Democratic Party? No. If it becomes the steady diet for the next three years? Yeah.”


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