NEW YORK -- A replay of the 2004 Iowa caucuses unfolded in New York this weekend at a meeting to preview candidates to lead the Democratic Party; six men appealed to voters in an attempt to bend or to bypass the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut of support behind a Green Mountain doctor named Howard Dean.
Dean, the former Vermont governor and presidential primary candidate, seems to lead the pack in a fierce race to chair the Democratic National Committee. The job's top responsibility: to lead the party out of its postelection doldrums.
Dean, for his part, stepped to the podium in a hotel ballroom in New York and told a crowd of several hundred people that the Democratic Party "cannot be Republican-Lite if you want to win elections." It was a revisit of a phrase from his presidential campaign, and the audience broke into cheers
"Dean's support right now is all over the country. It's in large states and small states, red states and blue states," Democratic strategist Donna Brazile said. "But you can't crown him king because all the would-be kingmakers and queenmakers are still holding their powder."
Yesterday, all seven candidates made their pitch before DNC officials from the East Coast at the Roosevelt Hotel; today a core of state party chairs -- who could control almost a quarter of the 447 votes to be cast Feb. 12 -- will decide whether to endorse a candidate. Key labor endorsements are expected to follow Tuesday.
Stakes are high for the Democratic Party, which in 2004 lost its bid for the White House, four Senate seats, and a national edge in registered voters. "Our party faces a Republican Party better organized and more powerful than it's been in 70 years," said Simon Rosenberg, a candidate for DNC chair and the president of the centrist New Democratic Network, which produced multimillion-dollar media campaigns on behalf of Democratic candidates last year.
Dean brings the best name recognition to the contest, but also the most baggage. Critics worry that he has a propensity to make provocative comments, typically before consulting allies, and that his positions on national security and social issues are too liberal to make inroads in the Republican-dominated South and Midwest.
"I think everyone likes him. But a vast majority are scared of what a Dean chairmanship would do in states like mine," said the Texas state party chairman, Charles Soechting, who has endorsed a fellow Texan, former US Representative Martin Frost.
"Some party officials do worry about Dean," said Randy Button, chairman of Tennessee's Democratic Party. "If it was Howard Dean as the governor who balanced budgets, it'd be easier. But now that he's been on the national stage, the perception is a lot different." Button also recalled that he had told Dean that although he appreciated the Vermont governor's 2003 outreach to Southern guys in pickups, he wished Dean had described trucks with "gun racks," not Confederate decals.
Dean carried with him to this caucus of East Coast party officials a string of endorsements over the past week from powerful Democrats, including a Clinton administration confidant, Harold Ickes. That move suggested that the party's influential Hillary-for-President wing won't stand in his way.
Still, Dean's opponents are determined to stop him.
"The issue for all of us is how to keep Howard from winning on the first ballot," said Wellington Webb, a former Denver mayor and the only African-American candidate for the DNC chair.
At the podium yesterday, barbs among candidates were subtle but often directed at Dean's knack for controversy. As DNC chair, "you must be a spokesman for the party, but not the only spokesman," said Frost, considered by most to be in second place behind Dean.
"I'm from a red state," said Tim Roemer, former congressman from Indiana and member of the commission that investigated the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "We need a chair that doesn't only represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party."
The race also reflects bitter divisions in the party, even as strategists say Democrats must unify to take on the Republicans. Roemer, who is backed by Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, is under siege by groups angry over his antiabortion stance.
Roemer has impressed state party chairs in the South with his "big-tent" vision of a party with room for conservatives and centrists. But yesterday, some in the audience hissed when Roemer defended his position on abortion.
Meanwhile, behind-the-scene efforts to stop Dean's candidacy are being matched on the Internet with pro-Dean blogs vigorously attacking opponents, particularly Roemer and Frost.
A little more than a year ago, grass-roots energy and an outpouring of Internet donations convinced many that Dean was likely to become the Democrats' presidential candidate. Instead, Senator John F. Kerry suddenly emerged to win the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary, and ultimately, the top spot on the Democratic ticket.
This time around, Dean is trying to keep a low profile and declining media interviews. "I'm not doing anything on the record," he said yesterday, as he greeted DNC members pouring into the Roosevelt Hotel ballroom.
Dean was the only candidate not to sponsor a public breakfast before yesterday's audition of candidates. A candidate and veteran party organizer, Donnie Fowler, distributed goodie bags full of grits and barbecue sauce. Others like Rosenberg, Webb, and Frost offered orange juice, coffee, and robust handshakes. But until the ballroom doors opened, Dean was nowhere to be found.
For weeks, the 447 state and local party officials, union leaders, and activists who make up the DNC membership have been inundated with phone calls and visits from candidates seeking to succeed Terry McAuliffe, in the first openly contested election for the top party spot since 1988. (In the years since, President Clinton made his selection and the membership followed suit.)
"It's retail politics at its very best; you've got to go voter to voter," said Fowler, a dogged campaigner who blends Southern roots with Silicon Valley appreciation for technology in politics. Fowler estimates that he has spent 200 hours talking with DNC voters this year.
Each DNC candidate offers similar themes: State party structures, hurt by a campaign finance change that barred soft-money donations, must be rebuilt. Dean, for example, is offering to have the DNC foot the bill for executive directors and top staffs in each state.
All the candidates agree that to capture the White House in 2008, the Democrats must adopt a 50-state strategy, not one that focuses on 18 to 20 swing states, as the Kerry campaign did. And, they say, the party needs a winning vision, although no one seems to know what that might constitute.
The problem for the "anyone-but-Dean" crowd is that no single candidate stands out as an ideal alternative. Among Dean's strongest competitors is Frost, who was redistricted out of his Texas congressional seat last year. Frost likes to advertise the fact that he has "gone toe to toe with the nastiest Republicans in D.C." -- that is, House majority leader Tom DeLay and White House political director Karl Rove.
Frost also boasts the deepest organizational resume: He reinvigorated the ailing Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee after the Democrats were crushed in the 1994 Republican sweep of Congress. And for decades, he coordinated campaigns in the red state of Texas. "The Republican's simply out-organized us," Frost said of the party's 2004 defeat.
Competitors dismiss the 63-year-old legislator, who got his start in politics with Hubert H. Humphrey, as an old-timer who is insufficiently attuned to new-wave technology and grass-roots organizing. As a DNC chair, observers say, Frost would be more mechanic than messenger, an intensely organized administrator who would not generate Dean-style sparks on the Sunday talk shows.
Should either of two former congressmen, Frost and Roemer, prove unpalatable as a "stop-Dean" candidate, former Ohio state party chairman, David Leland, Webb, Rosenberg, and Fowler are waiting in the wings.
Fowler, 37, is priming voting DNC members with an outside-the-Beltway message of disdain for Washington's "aristocracy of consultants" and with a determination to make the Democratic Party rise again in the South.
"Democrats don't need to reinvent their soul; they have to remember the have a soul," Fowler said in a pitch to caucus leaders.