WASHINGTON – Howard Dean (search) still appears to be the front-runner in the race for Democratic National Committee (search) chairman despite a late sprint by a relatively unknown but well-connected upstart.
The former presidential candidate and ex-governor of Vermont won majority backing Monday from the Association of State Democratic Chairs (search), FOX News has learned. Dean won 56 votes from the party's 112 voting members, as opposed to 21 votes for Donnie Fowler (search), who gained a surprise nod Sunday from the association's executive board.
Somewhat surprisingly, Texas Rep. Martin Frost, 63, only won five votes from the association. He had been seen as experienced and respected enough to take on Dean and is an expert fund-raiser.
The other candidates — former president of the New Democrat Network Simon Rosenberg (search), former Indiana Rep. and Sept. 11 commission member Tim Roemer (search) and former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb (search) — all came away with three votes apiece. Former Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Leland did not register on the tally. Twenty-one of the association members abstained or were absent from the conference call.
Afterward, Webb announced he was dropping out of the race and would back Dean instead.
Dean's showing contrasts with Sunday's event, in which the 17-member executive committee, meeting in New York, voted 8-6 to recommend to the entire association that Fowler be given the nod to replace outgoing party chairman Terry McAuliffe (search). Three members did not vote, and Dean won the other six votes.
Over the weekend, Dean also won the support of one influential Democrat — Harold Ickes (search), a close aide to N.Y. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (search). But a Monday article by columnist Robert Novak indicated that big donors to the party have warned DNC officials that they will seal up their wallets if Dean is named chairman.
Dean v. Fowler, Night v. Day
Fowler, 37, is the son of former DNC chairman Don Fowler, and is one of a growing number of centrist Democratic operatives calling on the party to open its mind to heartland values-oriented voters.
While his youth and good looks may seem an attractive alternative for weary Democrats who are sick of losing, Dean pledges to do for the party what he did in the presidential primaries — attract young, alienated voters.
Several top Democrats say they think Dean, 56, who screamed himself out of the presidential nomination last year following a poor showing in Iowa, is too extreme and controversial. But an enthusiastic showing at an event in New York City Sunday afternoon suggested the medical doctor was still as close to a rock star as the party can get.
In a speech to faithful Democrats, Dean hammered home the point that the party had to do more to distinguish itself from Republicans rather than move toward the center.
Insisting that the country is purple, and that so-called Republican red staters and Democratic blue staters want basically the same thing, Dean said Democrats needed to reach out to voters in heavily Republican areas and make crystal clear what the party represents.
"I don't think we need to be the pro-abortion party. Nobody's pro-abortion. But we ought to be the party where women are allowed to make up their own minds about what kind of healthcare they have," Dean told the cheering crowd of about 300, mostly young supporters.
"We're not the party of gay marriage, but we are the party that believes in fairness and that every single American ought to be treated exactly the same as everybody else under the laws of the Constitution," he said.
Dean also made clear that as chairman of the DNC, he would oversee grassroots organization-building in states such as Alabama, Mississippi and Utah. In the primaries, Dean had pounced on Sen. John Kerry for telling a reporter that he didn't need the South to win the presidency.
Despite the disappointing results, Fowler's aides said they believe he made a strong showing on Monday.
In 2004, Fowler ran Kerry's general election campaign in Michigan, where Kerry beat President Bush 51 to 48 percent. Kerry also carried Catholics in Michigan, and Fowler is credited with organizing churches in more rural areas of the state to come out for Kerry.
Frost and Rosenberg aides suggested after Sunday's vote that Fowler's father exerted hefty influence to give his son a lift. Dean aides said they consider Monday's vote further evidence that Dean is the big front-runner and increasingly well-positioned to win the chairmanship race next month on the first ballot, where a majority vote of 221 is required to win.
The association's 112-member body comprises a chair and vice chair in each state and the six U.S. territories. The entire DNC voting group is made up of more than 400 governors, congressmen, state, county and municipal officials, union members, lawyers and other activists. They will decide on their next leader in an election set for Feb. 12.
Fowler and Dean have clashed before. As an early top aide in the presidential campaign of Wesley Clark in 2003, Fowler criticized Dean as too far left for the good of the party.
FOX News' Carl Cameron, Major Garrett and Jane Roh contributed to this report.