Harold Ickes (search), a leading Democratic activist and former aide to President Clinton, said Friday he is backing Howard Dean (search) to be chairman of the Democratic National Committee (search) — giving a powerful boost to the front-runner.

"I think all the candidates who are running have strong attributes, but Dean has more of the attributes than the others," said Ickes, who considered running for chairman himself before dropping out in early January. "Many people say Howard Dean is a northeastern liberal, he is progressive, but his tenure as governor of Vermont was that of a real moderate."

Ickes, who is chairman of the political action committee of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (search), D-N.Y., said the endorsement was his alone and "does not reflect Sen. Clinton's opinion."

While Ickes would not comment on the Clintons' preferences, he is a close ally and would not be endorsing Dean against their strong objections.

"Senator Clinton is neutral in the race for DNC chair," said her spokesman, Philippe Reines. "She looks forward to working with the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee."

Ickes' endorsement comes at a critical time in the chairman's race and gives Dean almost 50 of the more than 215 votes he would need to win the post.

The field could be narrowed in the next few days, as state party chairs and organized labor offer their views on the race.

With Democrats out of power in the White House, Senate and House, the Democratic Party's leadership role is especially important.

The candidates for Democratic chair are former presidential candidate Dean, former Texas Rep. Martin Frost (search), Democratic activists Donnie Fowler (search) and Simon Rosenberg (search), former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb (search), former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer (search) and former Ohio state chair David Leland (search).

The DNC election is set for Feb. 12.

The candidates are invited to New York City this weekend for the last regional candidate forum. On Sunday and Monday, state party leaders will discuss whom they want to endorse.

Early next week, the AFL-CIO (search) could decide whether to endorse one of the candidates.

— Frost points to his record as head of the Democrats' congressional campaign committee in 1996 and 1998, raising $80 million and helping House Democrats gain ground on Republicans. He has the support of at least 15 DNC members, many from Texas.

— Fowler says his experience running campaigns in more than a dozen states helps him understand what state chairs need to build a successful party. Fowler has announced nine endorsements.

— Rosenberg points to his success raising money for the centrist New Democrat Network and his aggressive campaign to win Hispanic support for the party. He released the names Friday of four DNC members who back him.

— Roemer notes his background in national security as a member of the Sept. 11 commission and his ability to appeal to voters in all states. He has at least four DNC members backing him.

— Webb says his experience as a mayor would help him connect to local Democratic officials. He has the backing of at least 10 DNC members.

— Leland points to his ties in Ohio, the critical state in the 2004 presidential election. He has the backing of two DNC members.