WASHINGTON – A year ago, thousands of fans now known as "Deaniacs" were crowding into local pubs and coffee houses to declare their support for their favorite Democratic outsider for president.
Now, after a major loss in the primaries and a transformation into Democratic cheerleader, former Gov. Howard Dean (search) is looking at filling the top spot at the national party. But not everyone is convinced the Democratic National Committee (search) is the best place for a man hailing from arguably the most liberal state in the union, whose anti-war holler crystallized his energetic, but short-lived candidacy.
"I think the guy who thought that [John] Kerry was too centrist may not be the best representative for the party," said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute (search), the policy think tank of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
"His constituencies are the Internet activists, the MoveOn.org’s, who are anti-establishment — it’s funny that he would want to take over the DNC," he added. "Maybe he could diversify the fund-raising base, maybe expand the fund-raising base, but it’s not likely he can do a better job."
For the record, Dean has not officially thrown his hat into the ring to replace outgoing DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe. He has put out feelers, in that he has made calls to party officials, and is canvassing members of Congress who endorsed him for president as well as those who did not, but who could be in a position to help his bid along.
"His supporters want him to do this," said Laura Gross, spokeswoman for Dean’s political action committee, Democracy for America (search), "but he has to do what is right for the party and for the country and for him."
Dean is often credited for energizing disaffected voters, particularly young people who appreciated his candor about the war in Iraq and business-as-usual in the nation’s capital. He graced the cover of Rolling Stone magazine and at one point was even favored to win the Democratic primary because of his potential ability to get out "the base," which, pundits pointed out at the time, hailed mostly from the left.
He didn’t get the turnout he needed in the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, however, and his star was quickly eclipsed by that of John Kerry, whose campaign had been virtually written off by the media months before.
Gross said Dean spent the rest of the election not only campaigning for Kerry, but helping to raise money for Democrats like Ken Salazar (search) in Colorado, who won his close Senate race, and Allyson Schwartz, who won an open House seat in Pennsylvania. In all, Dean’s PAC raised $600,000 for 634 candidates on the local, state and federal levels, and took credit for helping along two new Democratic governors, and scores of successful candidates in 28 states, according to the PAC’s Web site.
"Win or lose, these fiscally responsible, socially progressive citizens fought to take our country back and helped spread the message that to change America, Democrats must compete everywhere," Dean said in a statement Nov. 15.
Being competitive everywhere is going to be a top goal of the next DNC chairman. But given that a big part of the job is raising millions of dollars from party establishment bigwigs, Dean's ability to fit is still up for debate.
"You know he can revitalize the energy of the base. Remember all the things he did with [former campaign manager] Joe Trippi, all the innovation," said Juan Williams, Fox News Channel contributor and correspondent for National Public Radio. "But what happens when you get to the big givers, those who are looking for more than an outlet to vent rage?"
Political strategists said Democrats, still smarting from an election loss widely blamed on an inability to speak to the nation’s heartland, may not be quick to put Dean — who led at the time Vermont became the first state to legalize gay civil unions — on the top of the growing list of possible McAuliffe replacements.
"I don’t underestimate Howard Dean but it would be a tough sell," said Democratic strategist Tom King. "It’s tough to run as an outsider and then try to be the insider."
Gross said Dean does not consider that a problem.
"Those are all things that we are going to be thinking of when deciding whether he should do this or not," she said.
Meanwhile, the nearly 40 members of Congress who had endorsed Dean in the primary appear to be playing their cards close to the vest in terms of sharing their favorites for the party chair. A lot of names have been floated across the table.
Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack had been mentioned as a frontrunner and had the support of prominent Hill Democrats, but last week said he would not seek the top spot in the Democratic Party. Other names tossed around include former Clinton White House advisor Harold Ickes, Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk and outgoing Texas Rep. Martin Frost. Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Labor Secretary Alexis Herman also looked like appealing candidates, but they have taken themselves out of the running.
"In my view, the party needs new faces that can help expand the party’s influence, I don’t think Howard Dean can do that," said Marshall.
But an Internet petition drive has already gathered nearly 4,000 signatures in favor of Dean to lead the party. The final vote among the 400-plus membership for chairman is scheduled for February.
"We need someone to invoke the passion and ideals that Democrats have always believed in," said 'Net signer Jeannine Yates. "Howard Dean can do that."