COLUMBIA, S.C. – Donnie Fowler (search) has spent years as a campaign nomad feverishly working behind the scenes as a Democratic operative outside South Carolina, but recently he became the candidate.
The 37-year-old Columbia native had entered the race to be next chairman of the Democratic National Committee (search), a job his father held more than a decade ago. Fowler positioned himself as an alternative to front-runner Howard Dean (search), a former Vermont governor and unsuccessful presidential candidate, in the race for the position.
But late Friday, Fowler, who ran John Kerry's Michigan campaign, said as he withdrew from the race because "it became clear that Howard Dean has the votes to become Democratic chairman."
Fowler was hoping to inject his Southern roots into the party that is now realizing it cannot abandon the region to win the White House.
Fowler, who fondly recalls growing up greeting people at black churches and stock car races with his father, Don, said he knows what it takes to appeal to Southern voters.
"Growing up in South Carolina at the time right when integration was new to our state, and growing up as a Democrat in a party that was trying to break free of the bonds of segregated politics and segregated life, I learned a tremendous amount of values that I carry with me today," he said.
Fowler's supporters said Dean proved he lacks the understanding when he said on the presidential campaign trail last year that he wanted "to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks."
"That may be true, the party does need to do that," said Kevin Geddings, a political consultant and former Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges' chief of staff. "But there is sort of an art for communicating and conveying the goals of the party and I think that someone with Donnie's background obviously would be superior than someone from the Northeast or from California."
Dean's candidacy sparked plenty of interest among young voters and attracted millions of dollars, largely through the Internet. But he failed to translate the buzz into votes when the primaries got under way, falling short in Iowa and New Hampshire and eventually abandoning the race.
"Donnie, I think, represents a new set of ideas where the Democratic Party should go," said Chris Kofinis, who worked with Fowler on retired Gen. Wesley Clark's presidential campaign in 2003.
Fowler has a range of experience, from serving as a page for Republican U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond while a junior in high school to working for the Rev. Jesse Jackson's presidential bid in 1988. He also was field director for Al Gore's presidential campaign in 2000.
He's worked on campaigns in 14 states. Last year, he was state director of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's Michigan operation.
"I have trouble sitting on the sidelines in any election," Fowler said. "The presidential election is the most exciting thing you can do every four years unless you're in the Olympics."
Fowler graduated from the University of South Carolina Law School in 1993, passed the bar and headed straight back to the campaign trail. He served as campaign manager for Inez Tenenbaum's unsuccessful bid for South Carolina lieutenant governor.
"He came into that, his first campaign and my first campaign too with a great sense of organization that is really unheard of for someone 26 years old," said Tenenbaum, who is now the state education superintendent. "He has a work ethic that is unsurpassed."
He's also known for his optimism and devotion to the Democratic Party.
"It's his life," said Marie Louise Ramsdale, a longtime friend who had helped raise money for Fowler's campaign. "That's why he's single at 37."
Fowler leaves room in each day for an intense exercise routine that keeps him in shape to compete in triathlons. He has participated in eight during the past two years.
The departure of Fowler and party activist Simon Rosenberg leaves a field of two - Dean and former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer (search). About 430 voting members of the party's national committee will choose a successor to outgoing DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe on Feb. 12.
"Clearly the national Democrats are screaming out for answers and I just don't think Donnie Fowler has Howard Dean's vocal chords," said Luke Byars, executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party.
Fowler said it was just a coincidence that he was trying for the job of DNC chair that his father once held. He said he has never tried to follow in his father's footsteps.
"It was just in his genes," his father said. Don Fowler said he has tried to give his son some advice over the years, "most of which he has ignored."
But the elder Fowler, who is a professor at the University of South Carolina, admitted that seeing his son win the post "would be the biggest thrill of my life."