NEW YORK – The nation's top Democrats have their eyes on 2008 as they psych up their party for a tough four years ahead.
"Where are the Democrats going to compete? ... We're going to compete everywhere. Everywhere, everywhere, everywhere," said former vice presidential candidate John Edwards (search) in an energized speech before the Democratic National Committee.
The former North Carolina senator was among the party's stars speaking at the DNC's annual meeting in Washington on Friday. But the shiniest star of them all may be Edwards' former rival in the presidential primaries, Howard Dean (search), who becomes the DNC's new chairman on Saturday.
Dean all but clinched the post on Tuesday when his last rival, former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer, abandoned his bid. Dean, a 56-year-old former Vermont governor, has been the front-runner for the job since announcing his candidacy, but a surprise sprint by up-and-comer Donnie Fowler (search) of South Carolina proved that the more centrist factions of the party are still uncomfortable with him.
"The question is how he will project the image of the Democratic National Committee," Dick Harpootlian, former state chairman of the South Carolina party, told the Associated Press. "The opinions on this range from disaster to huge success, and it's too early to tell."
Dean has fallen in line with most top Democrats, who say there is nothing wrong with the party's message but that its execution has been flawed. In speeches leading up to Saturday's election, Dean has pledged to build grassroots movements all across the country, especially in red states like Mississippi, Alabama and Utah.
"We are going to organize, we are going to be disciplined, we are going to build communities," Dean vowed in a recent speech.
But Republicans who can still hear the infamous scream that sank the Vermonter's White House hopes in Iowa last year were practically licking their chops.
"You have a guy that screams for attention," GOP operative Brad Blakeman laughingly told FOX News. "And while he's out there bashing the president and just being against everything, [RNC Chairman] Ken Mehlman and the Republican National Committee are going to do what they do best, and that is win elections," Blakeman said, dismissing the idea that Dean can help the Democrats win moderates.
On the other hand, Dean's supporters need only point to any number of his post-election speaking engagements, where crowds of mostly young voters still greet him like a rock star, when arguing that he's the man to reinvigorate the Democrats.
"I think Howard Dean is going to do a fabulous job of energizing the base, of doing, in a sense, what Karl Rove did so well ... which is getting the enthusiasts enthusiastic," Democratic strategist Susan Estrich told FOX News.
"I like Howard Dean, and the great potential he represents in solving the fund-raising dilemma that the Democrats have been in for a very long time," Thomas Frank, author of "What's the Matter With Kansas?" told FOX News.
But Frank, who prefers newspapers to TV, admits he missed out on the "I Have a Scream" speech.
Dean was not well known in late 2003, when many expected former Vice President Al Gore to have another go at President Bush.
But Dean's outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq drew young, disillusioned Democrats into his campaign by the thousands. Dean also broke Internet fund-raising records, with average donations of $100 adding up to millions.
Dean has also always insisted that he is not the liberal the media has painted him to be. During the presidential primaries, in an effort to sway moderates, he frequently touted his record of fiscal responsibility and support from the National Rifle Association.
In a speech to the party faithful earlier this month, Dean, a physician, said: "I don't think we need to be the pro-abortion party. Nobody's pro-abortion."
Such sentiments have been rippling throughout the party since John Kerry's defeat in November. Democrats elected Nevada's Harry Reid, who is anti-abortion, as their new Senate minority leader. And in January, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton dismayed some pro-choice activists when she described abortion as "a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women," and advocated ways to wipe out the need for it.
But as the GOP's recent attacks on Reid have shown, a centrist Democrat is not necessarily one who appeals to moderate Republicans.
The current patriarch of the party, former President Bill Clinton, said Democrats need only stick to their guns if they want to take back the White House.
"All that has to happen is you have to have a clear vision, a plan for the future, good campaign tactics and fight like the devil," he said Thursday at a rally for outgoing DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe.
"We need to brand ourselves better. There were too many people who didn't know why we were Democrats except that we were against President Bush's policies," Clinton said.
Indeed, after November's loss, many Democrats agreed that Kerry did not differentiate himself enough from the president.
"We see all the polls that come out that say Americans agree with us and all the issues. But we keep losing elections," Fowler spokeswoman Kirsten Powers told FOX News. "And so we need to be able to start communicating and connecting with the voters again and talking to them in a language that makes a little more sense and connects better."
Dean insists that if Democrats behave as themselves, rather than try to be more like Republicans, the voters will follow.
"We need to stand up for what we believe and bring people to us. We need to stand by our convictions of fairness, social and economic justice," he said earlier this month.