Rule No. 1 for any political partisan is, when the other side is struggling, stand back and keep your mouth shut. Or at least make sure you're keeping it bland.
Thus, by definition, Democratic chairman Howard Dean has slipped up - even if, as he claims, his comment last week that a lot of Republicans "have never made an honest living in their lives" was misinterpreted. For former Governor Dean, another fact of political life working against him is that more media than ever are tracking his every public word - and waiting to pounce if he goes off-message. For days after, the implications of said gaffe are hashed and rehashed, as other news comes and goes.
For Dean in particular - he of the famous scream during the 2004 primary campaign - the occasional arresting moment has become an expected part of his story line, just as malapropisms are for President Bush or a gaffe-free hour is for Republican chairman Ken Mehlman on "Meet the Press."
But so what? For most Americans, Dean's "honest living" comment goes unnoticed. In most states, it's not an election year. Where newsworthy remarks do matter is with the activists on both ends of the spectrum, already gunning for the next election - getting organized, raising money, and reaching out to the grass roots.
"Howard Dean could end up being a fundraiser for both sides," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., and onetime Republican activist. His comments "definitely enhance the polarization."
Yet another political fact of life for Dean is that, as chairman of the out-of-power party, his stature as a Democratic spokesman is enhanced - and will remain outsized until the Democrats have a clear presidential nominee in place, or if Dean leaves his post.
The party's congressional leaders, Harry Reid in the Senate and Nancy Pelosi in the House, are not as well known to the public as Dean, who at the peak of his 2004 campaign made the covers of Time and Newsweek.
Unlike previous party chairs, Dean came to Democratic headquarters already famous. So, says New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Kathy Sullivan, "I do think he's being held to a different standard than past party chairs on both sides."
When national committee members elected Dean, they knew what they were getting, warts and all, Democrats say. "I don't remember anyone saying, 'We want Dean to walk around with a bandage over his mouth,' " Ms. Sullivan adds.
What matters, say national party officials, is that since he took his seat on Feb. 12, he has made headway on his agenda. Fundraising has proceeded at a pace of $1 million a week, double the amount raised four years ago and two years ago, though well behind the Republicans.
Dean has also traveled the country, including red states, and invested $1 million in building up the Democratic party structures in 10 states: Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, West Virginia, Wyoming, Nevada, Nebraska, Mississippi, and Kansas.
On the downside for Democrats, the national committee has also contended this week with headlines about the departure of three top fundraisers, allegedly over frustration that "big donors" have not been courted. Party spokeswoman Karen Finney attributes those departures to natural turnover; all three had worked under previous Democratic chair Terry McAuliffe.
"Our focus is on both the major donors and the grass roots, because both are important," says Ms. Finney. "Every time he travels he is meeting with major donors and we are trying to do grass-roots events."
Still, say party officials, it is reasonable to expect that Dean would lay off immediately pressing for big bucks from major donors as he gets to know them personally. If Mr. McAuliffe was the Democratic chair with the golden Rolodex, then Dean is Mr. Grass Roots, as he showed during his primary campaign and unprecedented use of the Internet for fundraising.
The reality for Dean as he travels about the country is that - like most national Democratic figures - he has to pick his spots carefully. In Republican states with Democratic governors, such as Montana and Kansas, chances are Dean needs to keep a low profile, political analysts say.
"If Democratic governors in red states have learned anything, it's that the way to get reelected is to stay as far away from national politics as possible - whether it's Hillary Clinton or Bill Clinton or Howard Dean," says Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report. "It makes more sense to stay local."
Still, that doesn't preclude Dean from going to red states and investing in reviving moribund Democratic operations, in what he calls his 50-state strategy.
It has been nearly a week since Dean's infamous comment about Republicans' alleged employment habits, and the arc of the story seems near completion. Various party luminaries (and possible presidential candidates), such as Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, have publicly criticized Dean, then reembraced him, seeking to end the appearance of a circular firing squad.
"In the end," writes political analyst Charles Cook, "the upcoming midterm election is much more likely to be about (House majority leader Tom) DeLay than Dean, but for that very reason, Dean has to remember that his job is to keep the spotlight on Republican-caused problems, not create more for his own side."