Race for Democratic chair: a proxy fight over party identity

At least eight people are vying to hold a job crucial to the party's future direction.

Wanted: a new face of the Democratic Party. This person should have excellent communications skills - the ability to conceive and deliver a message - and an appealing television presence. Fundraising proficiency a must. Preferably hails from a red state; should hold hawkish views on foreign policy, and be comfortable discussing NASCAR and God.

In the battle for the soul of the Demo cratic Party, the most important choice - the selection of the next presidential nominee - won't happen for another three years. But Democrats are facing a preliminary proxy fight over the party's future identity and direction, as they search for a new chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Tellingly, the campaign has so far been marked as much by the many candidates who have declined to seek the post, after having their names floated - from Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack to former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen - as by those who are still actively pursuing it. Indeed, the race currently appears to be wide open, with at least eight contenders testing the waters - including former presidential candidate Howard Dean, Clinton adviser Harold Ickes, and former Rep. Martin Frost - and no obvious front-runner among them.

At a meeting of state party chairs over the weekend, other candidates jockeying to lead the party out of its political wilderness were: former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, former Michigan Gov. James Blanchard, former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, political strategist Donnie Fowler, and New Democratic Network president Simon Rosenberg. Some observers speculate that other possible candidates may yet enter the race.

The race has taken on unusual significance, coming on the heels of an election in which the DNC actually outraised its GOP counterpart, the Republican National Committee, but still lost the White House and lost further ground in the US Senate and House of Representatives. Indeed, many activists believe the party must rethink its fundamental message and strategic direction - with the new chair playing a critical role in that process.

"People are in the mood for somebody to offer a strategy for success here - not just how we win in 2006, but how do we change the party so it is competitive in the long term?" says a Democratic strategist working for one of the candidates.

There's general agreement among the candidates that the party must find a way to broaden its appeal. But, so far, there appears to be little consensus over how.

In some ways, the campaign is mirroring the fight for the 2004 presidential nomination, with Dr. Dean emerging as perhaps the most prominent candidate, but a polarizing one. Dean argues that the party needs to rebuild itself from the grass roots up, with its ideas and message coming from activists in places like Alabama rather than consultants in Washington.

"The reason I'm interested in running for the DNC chairmanship is because I think we need some fundamental things done differently," Dean said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." "I understand what it is to empower people who aren't in Washington."

Democrats lost in 2004, Dean says, primarily because Republicans did a better job of communicating with and mobilizing their voters. He believes his ability to reach out to the grass roots, as evidenced during the primary campaign, would make the party more competitive. Observers who see the party chair as primarily an organizer say Dean could be a strong pick, despite his liberal image.

"I actually think Howard Dean could be a very interesting choice for the Democratic Party - not from an ideological sense, but from a grass-roots sense and a message sense," says Republican pollster Frank Luntz. Not only does the former Vermont governor understand how to organize, says Mr. Luntz, but even more important: "You know where Howard Dean stands. You may not agree with him, but it's clear and it's crisp, and it's articulated effectively."

On the other hand, many Democrats believe that making Dean DNC chair would be a virtual gift to the Republican Party.

"Clearly we know how to get to 48 percent of the vote, or maybe even 49. But how do we get to 50 or 51 or 52?," says one Democratic consultant. "And the question to ask is: Is there any reasonable expectation that Howard Dean can help us win in states where John Kerry lost?"

While many Democrats may have reservations about Dean, no anti-Dean candidate has emerged yet. But that could easily change between now and February, when the 400-plus DNC members cast their votes.

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