Democrats find a defiant voice
Dean's rise to party chair bolsters ties to activist networks on the left.
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Certainly, exit polls showing that values were a top concern for voters who backed Bush have raised some debate within the party. But most Democrats say the solution lies in better anchoring the party's positions and beliefs in the language of values, rather than actually shifting its positions on social issues such as abortion.Skip to next paragraph
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Whether Dean, as the new party chair, will add to or detract from this effort to expand the party's appeal remains to be seen. Certainly, supporters and critics agree, he's likely to inspire Democrats and offer a staunch voice of opposition. Many cite Dean's ability to raise large sums of money over the Internet during his presidential run, and note that he has a clear ability to inspire grass-roots activists.
"We all witnessed this extraordinary revolution on the Internet, which is only going to continue," says Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster who worked on Dean's campaign. "The fact that [he] can continue to motivate and activate this extraordinary small-giver base is just a fantastic thing for the party."
But others caution that Dean's success may ultimately depend on how he defines his new role - and whether he puts the emphasis on fundraising and organizing or on becoming a party spokesman.
"If he puts his persona out as the face of the Democratic Party, I think there are going to be some people, particularly in red states, who are going to be uncomfortable with that," says one Democratic strategist.
Dean's star power alone may guarantee more media attention than previous party chairs have garnered, making it unlikely he'd remain a mostly behind-the-scenes player. Supporters say this could work to the party's benefit, bringing more attention to the party and its message. Dean's ability to project authenticity and candor, they say, could also provide the party with a refreshing new image.
But critics worry that a constant media spotlight trained on one of the party's most prominent critics of the Iraq war - and one whose public image, fairly or not, is as a staunch liberal - could reinforce a perception of Democrats as soft on defense. Some also say that Dean represents an elite, secular ethos that could alienate heartland voters and make it difficult for him to help Democratic candidates in certain regions of the country.
Still, most stress that Dean is simply becoming Democratic National Committee chair - a position that is supposed to appeal to activists - and point out that the presidential nominee will ultimately have a far greater say in setting the direction of the party. Indeed, Dean's ability to continue representing a strong face of liberal opposition could allow the eventual nominee - someone like Senator Clinton - to pivot more toward the center, picking deliberate points of disagreement with him.
"The party's going to have about 28 different faces until we have a nominee," says Mr. Maslin. "He'll be just one of many voices, and I think that's fine."