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After 100 Days at DNC, Dean Is No Longer Flying Under the Radar

Last Friday morning, an e-mail message arrived in my mailbox from Tom McMahon, Executive Director of the Democratic National Committee. At first, I thought it was another of the DNC’s endless appeals for money. But to my surprise the note, instead, directed me to tune in to NBC’s “Meet the Press” to watch Howard Dean “sit for a full hour.” Admittedly, my first reaction was to wonder if that was the best use I could make of an hour on Sunday.

Rather than dominating the national stage during his first 100 days as chairman of the Democratic Party, Dean has been traveling the country shoring up state party organizations and raising money while allowing elected officials like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) take the public lead. Now that the chairman — whom many Washington insiders continue to underestimate — has gone public, it’s time to assess his brief tenure at the DNC.

Following a very intense campaign to head the party, Dean came into office promising to “help rebuild and restructure” after another bitter, hard fought presidential election. From my observations, Dean is so far doing exactly what he said he would.

First, Dean promised to soothe relations with Congressional Democrats and help them get their message out to voters. Second, Dean said he would focus on the party base and do the desperately needed work to respond to the needs of stakeholders from the ground up. Dean also stated that Democrats would stand up to articulate, defend and protect the party’s core values.

Dean is working side by side with the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill and has kept his promise to allow them to set and deliver the message. Meanwhile, Dean has instructed his aides to meet with top House and Senate staffers to make sure the party’s message is reaching rank-and-file Democrats at all levels.

Dean has also established a working relationship with Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) to help prepare for the crucial midterm elections. Dean has used these working sessions to make sure the entire party is in harmony with its Hill leaders on important issues like Social Security and the GOP’s power play on judicial nominations.

Although host Tim Russert spent most of the Sunday morning interview trying to get the tart-tongued Dean to defend pointed statements he has made about various GOP officials and the Republican Party, the truth is that Dean will never win over many converts inside the Beltway. It’s sad to see the media continue to write off the same script about Dean, based on his infamous Iowa shriek which became a hardened metaphor faster than cement dries — Dean is too liberal, too shrill, too green for prime time. They’re just plain wrong.

Take, for instance, Russert’s commentary about Democrats’ supposed struggles in raising money. Dean is building on the strong foundation his predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, left behind. Since coming to Washington, Dean has raised a little over $1 million per week — similar to what McAuliffe raised in 2003, when the party raised $11,131,375 in the first quarter versus $18,280,000 raised through the same period in 2005. Yes, Dean can and will do better, but he’s also raising money without the benefit of having his party in power at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

In matters of message, strategy and tactics, his performance thus far has been nearly pitch-perfect. He has charted exactly the right travel itinerary, not just through Martha’s Vineyard and the battleground states, but right through the reddest parts of red-state America, including Mississippi and Kansas.

During one of my trips to Kansas last month, I asked Gov. Kathleen Sebelius about Dean’s visit to her state. She said she came away impressed.

“I told him to focus on the things he did as governor of Vermont, where he balanced the budget and help expand access to health care,” she recounted. Dean’s visit to Kansas, as was the case with his stops in other places, was sold out and attracted activists from across the heartland. Once again, he served notice that the Democrats will no longer cede potentially fertile ground to the opposition party.

Dean has shown that he understands the Democratic messaging problem. In his travels, he consistently tells the faithful that we must express our strong values in a way that connects with mainstream America without dumbing ourselves down into a pale imitation of the GOP. On abortion, for example, he (like another wise hand, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton) understands that we can strongly protect choice, while expressing understanding and empathy for the troubling moral dimensions many Americans perceive in this issue.

Our failure to do that, to essentially hew to Bill Clinton’s position that abortion should be safe, legal and rare, continues to needlessly alienate people in this country, including many Americans who basically support choice and should be voting for us. And Dean never fails to note that during the Clinton years, abortion rates fell, while they’ve risen during the Bush administration.

The jury is still out on the Potomac about the status of Democrats under Dean. But I believe he is in the process of pulling off the rarest of feats: overcoming the kind of negative first impression that is normally the grim kiss of political death.

Donna L. Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grass-roots political consulting firm.

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