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Dean strategy converts skeptics

- The Washington Times - Friday, August 22, 2008

Howard Dean's critics scoffed when the new Democratic National Committee chairman launched a party-rebuilding plan in 2005 that sent paid teams of campaign organizers into every state, including states that have been in the GOP's electoral column for decades.

No one's scoffing now.

Since the former Vermont governor and failed 2004 presidential candidate began sending cadres of trained ground troops into rock-ribbed Republican states such as Virginia, Colorado, Montana, North and South Dakota and Georgia, these and other traditionally "red" states have turned into surprisingly competitive presidential battlegrounds.

Mr. Dean's strategy, which had many doubters at the time, is widely credited with the party's political turnaround.

"The days of the Democratic Party not showing up in half the states are over. When Democrats show up, talk about our values, how we will create jobs and provide health care, we can win in any part of the country," Mr. Dean told The Washington Times.

"We proved that in states like Mississippi, Indiana and Colorado, and we'll do it again in November when we elect Barack Obama the next president of the United States," he said.

Democrats have taken three Republican-held House seats in special elections this year, including races in Mississippi and Louisiana and the House seat long occupied by former Republican Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois.

However, perhaps nowhere has Mr. Dean's long-term strategy produced more stunning results than in Indiana, a historically solid Republican state that Democrats have carried just twice since 1936. Democrats have since picked up three congressional seats, and Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama is in a dead heat with Republican rival Sen. John McCain.

"Dean established the campaign strategy that the Democratic Party had to compete in all 50 states and invest in all 50 states in terms of establishing an infrastructure at the grass roots by putting additional staff into the states and having them stick around after the election was over," said Indiana Democratic Party Chairman Dan Parker.

"If you look at Indiana as a case in point, we really never, ever received help from the DNC, but we did in 2005, 2006 and 2007," he said. "We received three full-time employees that pushed our total to eight, and we won three House seats and are now a target of Sen. Obama's campaign. We've opened up close to 20 campaign offices for Obama, working with the DNC."

Mr. Parker said that in hindsight, the 50-state strategy was "the crowning achievement of Dean's term, because prior to him, the DNC invested only in those states that were considered 'the battlegrounds.' We're now one of those battlegrounds."

Interviews with other Democratic state chairmen around the country elicit similar rave reviews for Mr. Dean's drive to put three to four additional full-time paid organizers into each state - in most cases doubling their staffs.

"The staffing made a lot of difference," said Colorado Democratic Party Chairman Patricia Waak. "It enhanced our ability to take over the state politically. The DNC came in and enhanced our voter file, helping us to mobilize people throughout the state.

"The result is we elected a governor, a state treasurer, [won] another House seat and added four state Senate seats and four state House seats," she said.

President Bush carried the state in 2000 and 2004, but this year, polls show a statistical tie, with Mr. Obama edging out his Republican rival by fewer than 2 percentage points.

Mr. Dean's chairmanship has had its critics.

In the 2006 midterm elections, Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, criticized the party chairman for pouring money into die-hard Republican states, arguing that some of that money could better be used to tip close House races into the Democratic column. Mr. Emanuel eventually got an additional $5 million from the DNC, and the Democrats picked up 31 House seats and took control of the chamber for the first time since 1994.

Democratic strategist Lanny Davis, a former adviser to President Clinton, said Mr. Dean deserves "a great deal of credit" for his party-rebuilding plan but also criticism for the way he dealt with the party's internal battles over this year's primary schedule and delegate controversies.

"The big minus is his failure to show leadership in the party's dispute over the Michigan and Florida primaries" that violated party scheduling rules, forcing the DNC to strip them of their convention delegates, Mr. Davis said.

The fight over the two delegations led to major tensions between Mr. Obama and rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

"There was an opportunity to fix that by having a revote, but [Mr. Dean] was very inflexible. It was a failure of leadership that disappointed me. He's supposed to be a political leader and seek out solutions," Mr. Davis said. "The irony is that Obama has asked that both delegations be fully seated."

Still, there is far more praise among the party's rank-and-file for Mr. Dean's tenure than there is criticism.

"His forward thinking on strategy is what got us into the position where we are going to contest all 50 states. This was a tremendous investment in capital, and there was a lot of push-back from people who thought the DNC couldn't afford to do that," said Brian Melendez, the Minnesota Democratic Party chairman.

When Mr. Dean took office in 2005, he was shocked to learn that most state parties didn't even have a media director to hone their party's message. "We now fund about 30 state communications directors because the state parties previously didn't have one," a senior DNC official said.

A comprehensive review of the party ordered by the new chairman concluded that "we needed to expand the electoral map, build infrastructure, improve access to and the reporting of voter information, plan ahead and have trained staff on the ground early [and] modernize communication," according to a DNC "How We'll Win" memorandum put out earlier this year.

"We start with 183 reliably Democratic [electoral] votes so we need to expand the Democratic playing field to get to the magic number of 270 votes," the memo said. That led to the creation of the State Party Partnership Program, otherwise known as the 50-state strategy.

Mr. Dean also created a state-of-the-art national voter file and an in-house "microtargeting" technology that identifies each voter's specific concerns to help refine outreach appeals - tools that already had been used effectively by Republicans.

"We've taken a page out of the Republican playbook in a lot of ways," said a senior DNC adviser.

While Mr. Dean's 50-state strategy - and the Obama campaign's efforts to contest many more red states - have put a number of previously Republican states in play, some top election analysts think most targeted states will remain in Republican hands.

Veteran election tracker Charlie Cook still puts nearly a dozen of the Democrats' targeted states in the "likely" or "leaning" Republican column, including North and South Dakota, Montana, Georgia, Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Missouri and Arkansas.