WASHINGTON—Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who ran for president as a Democratic Party outsider who disdained Washington politics, is now virtually assured of being elected chairman of the Democratic Party, one of the most visible political insiders in the nation's capital.
Dean secured the support of the United Auto Workers on Wednesday, the first union to back him for the chairmanship. That was a sure sign that the support he received Monday from state party chairmen was propelling him toward victory on Feb. 12, when the full 447-member Democratic National Committee votes.
"The door is shut. This thing is done. Put the fork in it," Donna Brazile, a longtime Democratic political operative, said of Dean's likely victory.
The Vermont doctor stunned the political world with his meteoric presidential run in 2003 and his equally dramatic plunge to defeat in Iowa's January 2004 caucuses, which he climaxed with a defiant scream heard `round the world, thanks to endless TV replays.
Despite his loss, Dean's full-throated opposition to the Iraq war won him credit for showing the party how to challenge President Bush's policy on Iraq. He broke new ground in tapping the Internet for fund raising, and his appeal to college students brought many new voters into the party. Those achievements kept him alive as a force in the party even after he departed the presidential contest.
Despite anxiety among some Democrats that his image as a fiery antiwar Northeasterner is the opposite of what the party needs if it is to win again nationally, Dean has persuaded party leaders that he can do what's needed. Besides his prodigious fund raising, he proved himself a loyal Democrat by rallying to the side of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry last fall.
Moreover, while Dean's image is liberal because of positions he took as a presidential candidate, his policies while he was governor of Vermont were fiscally conservative and pragmatically moderate. That could make him more attuned to the party's challenge in Republican-leaning regions across the country than his image would suggest.
"Governor Dean understands quite clearly that the Democratic Party cannot afford to write off voters in any region of the country, and we're convinced that he will work tirelessly to make Democratic ideas and candidates winners in local, state and national elections," UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said.
The chairmanship has attracted particular attention this year as the Democratic Party tries to rebound from defeat. But party chairmen seldom set the party's agenda, leaving that to congressional leaders. They focus on fund raising, grass-roots organizing and helping to recruit candidates.
Robert Farmer, a veteran fund-raiser of four presidential campaigns and treasurer of the Kerry-Edwards campaign last year, said Dean had the kind of high public profile that made him indispensable.
"He has a particular national stature that when Howard Dean calls, he's going to get his phone calls returned, and that's very important for the chairman," Farmer said. "Howard Dean is going to do just fine with the donor community."
Dean was a distant third-place loser in the Iowa caucuses when he appeared before his supporters in Des Moines and tried to turn a concession speech into a pep rally. His fist-waving, howling performance became emblematic of his sometimes erratic candidacy.
"After 10 years you just wonder if the Democrats are running out of ways to say no," House Republican leader Tom DeLay of Texas said this week, criticizing their opposition to Republican initiatives. "But then again, they may make Howard Dean the party chairman. I guess they could scream it."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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