WASHINGTON — Howard Dean, at least on paper, should be the power broker best positioned to get the Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama people behind closed doors and resolve their fight over contested delegates from Florida and Michigan, which threatens to rupture the party.
But in this tense time, when Democrats are whispering and wondering about whether there's a wise man or woman out there who could step in and break the presidential candidates' deadlock, the Democratic Party chairman isn't being widely considered as a natural for that role.
Dean has his backers.
"He's really the obvious person to broker some sort of compromise, and a lot of people think he's done a really good job so far," said former Iowa Democratic Chairman Gordon Fischer.
That seems to be a minority view, however.
"Traditionally, the head of the Democratic National Committee would be the peacemaker, but I'm not sure Howard Dean has the stature or the power to play that role," said Kevin Wagner, an assistant professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University.
Neither Dean nor his staff would comment on his potential role.
"It's premature to speculate when we still have more than a thousand delegates still at stake," said Stacie Paxton, Dean's spokeswoman.
Dean, 59, the party chairman since February 2005, faces a series of challenges along the path to the August Democratic convention — most notably, the simmering dispute over how to seat the 366 delegates from Florida and Michigan. They make up about 18 percent of the 2,025 delegates needed to nominate a candidate.
Both states defied party edicts and held primaries in January, and the DNC refuses to recognize the results. Clinton won both contests, though Obama and most other candidates took their names off the Michigan ballot. None of the candidates campaigned in Florida.
Clinton now insists that the two states' results count and that their delegates should be seated. Obama says Clinton is trying to change the rules that everyone agreed to now that doing so may be the only way she can get enough delegates to win. Many of Obama's followers would view a Clinton nomination that's decided by these delegates' votes as a stolen election, and they'd be hard-pressed to support her in November.
The fight has taken on racial overtones. NAACP Chairman Julian Bond wrote to Dean, saying that not seating the states' delegations could bring up the "sordid history of racially discriminatory practices" since both states have sizable minority populations. Dean plans to respond shortly.
2004 Democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton disagreed, saying that seating those delegates "would not only violate the Democratic Party's rules of fairness, but also would be a grave injustice."
Dean is very much in the middle. He tried hard last year to discourage state officials from holding the early primaries — even offering funds to help Florida pay for an alternative process — and could wind up with a pivotal role in resolving this dispute.
He wants Florida and Michigan to come up with a new way to pick delegates. If that doesn't happen, the party's credentials committee would consider the matter later this summer.
The committee has 186 members, and its three chairmen all served in Bill Clinton's administration: Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, Social Security Administration associate commissioner James Roosevelt Jr. and White House travel consultant Eliseo Roques-Arroyo.
Twenty-five members are Dean appointees, and the rest are from states and other jurisdictions. All are almost sure to be divided between Clinton and Obama loyalists. The committee's recommendations could end up going to the full convention and a roll call of the states unless Dean or others can quickly fashion a compromise.
But it could be hard for Dean to broker a behind-the-scenes accord, said Douglas Koopman, a political science professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.
"I don't think his strength is resolving conflicts. That's not what you think of when you think of Howard Dean," Koopman said.
While party officials generally regard Dean as effective and efficient, his role has been more of an executive director than spokesman and statesman.
"I don't think he's regarded as a bad chairman, but the person in that chair is widely seen as someone who delivers resources. They're not really viewed as a broker," said Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., the vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.
Even if Dean emerges from the delegate-seating political thicket unscarred, he faces other troubles if he tries to wield last-minute convention muscle — his own history.
His insurgent 2004 presidential campaign, in which he ran against party orthodoxy and a lot of its stalwarts, is well remembered. So is the campaign's denouement: his scream on the night of the Iowa caucus.
"From the time Howard Dean screamed, his gravitas started to melt away. If he ever had any," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at the University of Southern California.
Dean's biggest problem could be simply that he heads a party that's long been hard to organize. As long ago as Franklin D. Roosevelt's first term, humorist Will Rogers quipped: "I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat."
In some ways, said former New Hampshire Democratic Chairwoman Kathy Sullivan, party members can still use that line today.
"Democrats," she said, "hate being told what to do."