Former presidential candidate Howard Dean (search), once the early front-runner for the Democratic nomination whose candidacy stumbled, has decided to seek the party's chairmanship.

"The Democratic Party needs a vibrant, forward-thinking, long-term presence in every single state," Dean wrote in a letter to members of the Democratic National Committee (search). "We must be willing to contest every race at every level. We can only win when we show up."

Dean's entry into the race appears to pre-empt another bid for the presidency in 2008. The chairman's job carries a four-year term and Dean has said that anyone who serves as chairman should be ruled out as a presidential candidate.

In his letter, Dean made it clear that he remains part of what he calls "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," a phrase he borrowed from the late Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota.

"That word — 'values' — has lately become a codeword for appeasement of the right-wing fringe," Dean wrote. "But when the political calculations make us soften our opposition to bigotry, or sign on to policies that add to the burden of ordinary Americans, we have abandoned our true values."

Dean joins a field that includes former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer (search), former Texas Rep. Martin Frost (search), Democratic activists Simon Rosenberg (search) and Donnie Fowler (search), former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb (search) and former Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Leland (search).

Throughout 2003, Dean was the leading Democrat for the presidential nomination, securing the backing of former presidential candidate Al Gore and impressing party leaders with his ability to raise millions — and attract scores of followers — through the Internet.

His strong opposition to the Iraq war energized rank-and-file Democrats.

But just a year ago, Dean's candidacy faltered in the Iowa caucuses as he finished third behind Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. Dean's bizarre "yeee-ah" shout during a post-caucus rally in Des Moines was played over and over on television.

Moderate Democrats have been searching for an alternative to Dean for the chairmanship, concerned that the former governor would lead the party in a more liberal direction. Some senior Democrats have approached current chairman Terry McAuliffe (search) about staying in the job.

"Dean will have a tremendous edge with party insiders," said veteran Democratic activist Donna Brazile, a DNC member. "But this race remains very fluid. He will have to continue to work very hard to win the heart and soul of the party."

Longtime DNC member Susan Turnbull said Dean still has plenty of work to do because DNC members are being cautious and want to know what the candidates would do for the state parties.

Democrats will vote on party chairman in early February.