WASHINGTON – Howard Dean's bid for chairmanship of the Democratic Party (search) has tapped into members' hunger for a fighter who can recruit new supporters, raise plenty of money and inspire enthusiasm in a party out of power.
Now he's on the cusp of leading a party that once rallied behind his presidential bid only to abandon him a year ago when the voting started in Iowa.
"He gave the Democratic Party its swagger back," said Kathy Sullivan, chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, reminiscing about Dean's willingness to challenge President Bush (search). "He reminded them that they should not act like a beaten dog."
Still, some Democrats worry about the image Dean projects: anti-war Northeastern liberal from Vermont, the state that led the way on civil unions for gays. Amid all the talk of values, Democrats wonder if Dean would be an albatross as they try to make inroads with conservative-leaning voters in the South and Midwest.
And they wonder how many times television will replay Dean's "I have a scream" speech after his disheartening third-place finish in Iowa behind the two candidates who eventually comprised the Democratic presidential ticket — John Kerry (search) and John Edwards (search).
"Some people worry that Republicans will portray him as a crazy liberal," said Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution. "The question is whether he can effectively counter that."
Dean backers argue that the liberal image is undeserved for a former governor who repeatedly balanced the budget and backs gun rights.
Numerous members of the Democratic National Committee have rallied to Dean, reminded of his ability to galvanize voters through the Internet, grass-roots organizing and fund raising from small donors.
On Friday, the field challenging Dean was reduced by two as activists Simon Rosenberg (search) and Donnie Fowler abandoned their bids and endorsed Dean. The remaining opponent is former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer, who has gotten little support.
"What's going on with Democrats right now is we're coming to understand and accept we're not a majority party," Rosenberg said in a telephone interview with reporters. "We're fighting in ways we didn't use to have to fight."
Dean is expected to have the necessary votes when the 447-member DNC meets Feb. 12.
Although he didn't back his presidential bid, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said Dean will "invigorate the party with his enthusiasm and his organizational ability. After he lost, he went out and worked for Democratic candidates to get them elected. He's got volunteers all over the country."
Added Murtha, "The point is that he's not running for president, he's running for Democratic national chairman."
Dean will have to work at fulfilling a different role for the party, said veteran Democratic activist Harold Ickes, who endorsed Dean.
"Howard's biggest challenge will be to understand that he is not a governor, not a presidential candidate," Ickes said. "He's quick to take a position; he will have to slow that down."