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Are the Democrats Really Ready for Howard Dean?

Former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.) wants to become the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee. But do the members of the DNC want him? [IMGCAP(1)]

Say what you will about Dean — he has chutzpah, and that’s something the party needs right now.

On the other hand, critics of the Vermont doctor, both inside and outside his own party, portray him as a poor messenger for the Democrats. They argue that he is too liberal and would give the Republicans an easy target during the next two years.

They have a point, but Dean counters that he balanced budgets in Vermont and received strong ratings from the National Rifle Association over the years — positions usually associated with the right, not the left. The former governor calls himself a populist and argues that his party needs to get back to its roots — its grass roots.

Dean can be combative and angry, as he often was on the campaign trail. But he’s not always whooping it up the way he did the evening of the Iowa caucuses. On “Meet the Press” in mid-December, he was downright low-key, while still delivering his message of change and principle.

Is Dean too liberal to be selected by the approximately 400 DNC members next month? It isn’t clear that he is.

Yes, comments by Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid and House leader Nancy Pelosi encouraging former Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.) to get in the DNC hunt reflect a sense on the part of many Democrats that the party needs a leader who can move it “to the center,” not to the left.

But the Democratic Party continues to include a strong, vocal contingent of liberal activists who won’t be satisfied with someone from the Democratic Leadership Council wing of the party.

Remember, it was Dean who, at the DNC’s winter meeting early in 2003, brought cheering members of the committee to their feet when he lambasted both President Bush and his own party leadership (which, after all, included those DNC members).

The former Vermont governor’s message and combative style resonated so well in his party that virtually everyone else in the race for the party’s 2004 nomination appropriated part of it. From a party point of view, Dean obviously did a lot right during 2004, including his energetic support for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry throughout the fall.

So far, few have raised questions about Dean’s political judgment. But there are questions that deserve to be asked.

While a party’s national chairman must welcome all into the fold and back all of the party’s candidates, party leaders ultimately must be realistic about where to put the party’s limited resources. All ideas and all candidates are not equal.

While Dean and his political group, Democracy for America, backed or contributed to hundreds of candidates around the country, the group’s Web site lists 101 candidates as members of “Dean’s Dozens.” Of those 101 candidates, just fewer than one third, 32, won. That’s not the kind of percentage that the Democrats are aiming for, whether in state legislatures or Congress.

More importantly, Dean’s Dozens included more than a handful of candidates who had little or no chance of winning, such as Congressional hopefuls Lois Herr (34 percent in Pennsylvania’s 16th district) and Melina Fox (31 percent in Indiana’s 6th).

Of course, if critics of the former governor question some of his Dean’s Dozens choices, supporters of Dean counter that some of his selections demonstrate that he isn’t the wild-eyed liberal that Democratic moderates say he is.

Also listed among Dean’s Dozens are recently elected Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.), recently elected Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and unsuccessful Washington secretary of state candidate Laura Ruderman (D), all of whom were also on the Democratic Leadership Council’s “100 to Watch” list in 2003.

And Dean gets points for looking for candidates running far down-ballot — for sheriff in Arizona, county council in Indiana and for a soil and water conservation district in Florida — in his efforts to revitalize the party. He’d get more points if all of those candidates won and if there was any indication that the winners would eventually move up the political ladder.

Dean has a considerable bloc of supporters among those who’ll pick the next party chairman, and that makes him a contender for his party’s top job. The support of Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) obviously is a huge asset to Dean, because it constitutes appeal beyond the Vermonter’s usual base.

But it is not yet clear whether a majority of DNC members are willing to gamble on Dean. Whether or not he deserves it, Dean is saddled with the reputation of an anti-war liberal from the Northeast at a time when many Democrats are looking for a different image. That’s why the DNC contest could ultimately become a fight between the former governor and the “anyone but Dean” contingent in the party, which sees the former governor as an albatross around the party’s neck.

Unfortunately for Dean, a battle between himself and an “alternative” is not an ideal scenario: He already lost that battle once, in Iowa, almost two years ago.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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