- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 30, 2005

Howard Dean, failed presidential candidate, is the front-runner for Democratic National Committee chairman. But some rank-and-file DNC members fear he is too liberal and too erratic to unite and broaden their party’s base.

In a field of a half-dozen candidates vying to run the party for the next four years, Mr. Dean is emerging as the strongest contender, drawing support from Southern state chairmen, the Congressional Black Caucus, former DNC chairmen, and even members of the Democratic Leadership Council that bitterly fought his antiwar presidential candidacy.

As he did in his 2004 campaign, before it imploded in Iowa’s caucuses (he did not win a single primary), Mr. Dean has been using his considerable organizing skills and Internet acumen to attract substantial support among the 447 DNC members who will elect their party leader on Feb. 12. DNC insiders say they have been inundated with calls and messages from Mr. Dean and his supporters, creating a bandwagon effect.

But interviews with Democrats around the country show many still harbor doubts about Mr. Dean, fearing his socially liberal, anti-Iraq war positions will further damage the party after its disastrous election losses.

“He’s perceived by some elements in our party as being on the extreme side,” Arizona State Democratic Chairman Jim Pederson told me last week. “I don’t think that’s correct because he served as a pragmatic governor,” he added, though that doesn’t change Mr. Dean’s image.

However, he agreed Mr. Dean would come to the job with a lot of ideological baggage as the leader of the Democratic Party’s antiwar bloc who fiercely condemned his party’s leaders for voting to go to war in Iraq and staked out far-left positions on trade protectionism and higher taxes (he wanted to repeal all of President Bush’s tax cuts).

“If Dean is the winner of this election, he has some outreaching to do” to party centrists and swing voters who didn’t like what he stood for, he told me. “He has an outreach challenge.”

For those who have forgotten his presidential history, Mr. Dean was known for more than just his screaming performance after he lost Iowa. He made many wildly irresponsible, shoot-from-the-hip statements that suggest he could be a loose cannon as DNC chairman.

Among them: he expressed doubts whether the Iraqis were better off with Saddam Hussein out of power; suggested Osama bin Laden should not be prejudged before he has had a jury trial; and intimated the United States may not always be the world’s strongest military power.

One of his Democratic rivals in the 2004 race, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, said if Mr. Dean’s trade protectionist proposals, tax increases and other regulatory schemes became law, they would plunge the country into a depression.

Few Democrats were willing to speak as frankly as Mr. Pederson did with me about Mr. Dean’s problems as a potential party leader, but some privately agreed they were troubled by his far-left positions on critical economic and national security issues that doomed his candidacy.

It’s no secret in Democratic circles that former President Bill Clinton and his wife, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, do not want Mr. Dean to be party chairman. In the 2004 race, they saw Mr. Dean as the “anti-Clinton” who wanted to turn the party away from the more centrist policies Mr. Clinton set forth on trade, welfare reform and other issues.

Mr. Clinton was so disturbed by the thought of Mr. Dean as chairman that he asked outgoing DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe to seek another term. But Mr. McAuliffe refused.

Many Democrats were hoping party leaders would get behind one of the other candidates vying for the post. But they have largely stayed out of the fight. The Democratic governors wanted a two-tier arrangement, with an executive running the DNC and one of their own the party’s spokesman. The stop-Dean idea went nowhere.

Former Rep. Tim Roemer of Indiana was a late entry who got in at the urging of House and Senate leaders, but his opposition to abortion, which he called “a moral blind spot” in his party, killed his chances.

For now, former Texas Rep. Martin Frost, who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is trailing Mr. Dean, followed by Simon Rosenberg, who heads the centrist-leaning New Democrat Network. But a DNC official tells me, “If the election were held today, Dean would win.”

Mr. Dean’s appeal is not just to the liberal wing of his party. Scott Maddox, Florida’s Democratic chairman, who said he’s “from the conservative end of my party,” told me he is “perfectly comfortable supporting Dean.”

“Issues are secondary things you look for in a chairman,” he said. But Mr. Dean’s insurgent presidential candidacy placed him so far to the left of his chief rivals, his fiery brand of Yankee liberalism can only exacerbate his party’s precipitous decline.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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