WASHINGTON – A year ago, an activist group from the Seattle area gave Howard Dean (search) a thin, golden statue of a backbone.
The Oscar-like award honored the former Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont governor for standing up against the Iraq (search) war and other Bush administration policies.
Now, as Dean settles into his new role as head of the Democratic Party, that golden spine has come to represent, for many liberal Democrats, Dean's potential to develop a tougher, take-no-prisoners attitude among the party faithful.
"There's no gut-check required for Dean. Dean just needs to be Dean," said Dal LaMagna, founder of the Progressive Government Institute (search). "He's the kind of person who's a collaborator, a facilitator. He's not someone who has a clique or who will only talk to people in his clique."
In an e-mail sent to supporters Thursday, Dean said he has gotten an overwhelming response from "grass-roots Democrats" offering input on the party's agenda.
"So many Democrats can't wait to get started. They want to grow our party from the ground up. And that's exactly what we're going to do," Dean said.
Dean traveled Thursday to upstate New York and to Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., where he criticized President Bush for suggesting Social Security faces a big crisis. As for the president's plan to create personal investment accounts as part of Social Security, Dean said, "I don't believe the way to fix Social Security is to have Wall Street run it so that it can be invested in Enron and Tyco and MCI."
Bill Moyer, executive director of the Backbone Campaign, said he hopes Dean will continue to be a leader among liberal Democrats and that his chairmanship will mark a turning point for the party.
"Dean is the link to this progressive movement," Moyer said. "The Democratic Party can either use that or squander it."
The latest recipient of the golden backbone was Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio, who challenged Ohio's electoral college results from last November's election in Congress, forcing a rare debate in the House and Senate.
Tubbs Jones said having a backbone, for Dean, may mean bringing liberal Democrats to the table with the rest of the party.
"There are some that worry that he will move the party too far to the left, but I'm not worried about that," she said. "I think he will give definition to the party and allow Democrats to define the party instead of allowing Republicans to define us."
Another golden spine recipient, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, said the Democratic Party's problem is that it needs to stop talking in generalities and start articulating its message: "I don't know why the Democratic Party even exists if it can't advocate for universal health care and ending the war in Iraq."
Dean was elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee two weeks ago on a platform that he would rebuild state parties, take the offensive against Republicans and do a better job explaining the party's positions on issues. He replaces outgoing party chief Terry McAuliffe.
As chairman, the normally blunt Dean appears to be trying to shift from flamboyant presidential candidate to cautious party spokesman. The former anti-war candidate has sidestepped questions about the Iraq war and given tame descriptions of the party's position on abortion and gay marriage.
Jodie Evans, a founder of the women's peace group Code Pink, said she's watching to see if Dean maintains his grass-roots connection or becomes part of the Democratic establishment in Washington. "He had the courage to step into a position where he can break the Democratic Party out of its stagnation," she said. "Does he have the leadership capacity to do that?"
It's this balancing act between pleasing the more liberal parts of the party while also appealing to middle-of-the-road voters that will be Dean's biggest challenge, said Charles Franklin, a political scientist from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"Howard Dean almost certainly has to disappoint his strongest liberal supporters simply because he's going to have to serve a broader Democratic Party," Franklin said. "So it's almost inevitable that there will be charges of sellout."
Democratic leaders, initially wary of a Dean chairmanship, started embracing his leadership after several high-profile Democrats vying for the position backed out of the race.
But activist groups such as the Progressive Democrats of America, made up of many former Dean and Kucinich campaign volunteers, and TrueMajority, a Vermont group founded by Ben & Jerry's owner Ben Cohen, supported his chairmanship from the beginning.
Progressive Democrats launched a "Draft Dean for DNC Chair" campaign and TrueMajority urged supporters to send 13,500 letters to Democratic leaders on Dean's behalf.
"He saw the power of grass-roots activism," said Duane Peterson, director of TrueMajority ACTION. "That's how he got in there as chairman, so there would be no reason for him to turn his back on it. It worked."