Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack is out, former Vermont governor Howard Dean may be in, a host of others are considering, and everybody wants to know: Whom do the Clintons want?
Less than a month after Sen. John F. Kerry's loss to President Bush, the current parlor game among Democrats is speculation over who will take over the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee when Terence R. McAuliffe steps down early next year.
The prospective battle has become a window in the party's many factions, an early gut check for some prospective 2008 presidential candidates and yet another opportunity for Democratic activists to replay the lessons of Kerry's loss. The selection of a new chairman in early February will provide the first collective judgment by party insiders on what went wrong and what Democrats need to do to begin their comeback.
With Democrats out of power, the new chairman will have substantial power to help organize the opposition to Bush and his second-term agenda, in much the way the Republican National Committee under Haley Barbour (now governor of Mississippi) did after Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992.
The new DNC chairman, along with the party's congressional leadership, will become one of the Democrats' most visible spokesmen over the next year or two. Beyond that, he or she will have to manage the party's disparate coalition -- no easy task when the party does not control the White House -- and prepare for crucial off-year elections in 2005 and 2006 while making sure the fundraising operation, which was one of McAuliffe's biggest accomplishments, does not begin to wither.
McAuliffe was a controversial chairman at times during his four-year tenure, but he will leave behind party machinery that is in far better shape than when he took over. There is no debt for the new chairman to inherit, but updated technology, voter files and a newly renovated headquarters await. "It's not a broke party," said Gina Glantz, who was Bill Bradley's 2000 campaign manager and now is a top official at the Service Employees International Union. "It may be broken, but it's not broke."
But there is disgruntlement among some, particularly the heads of the state parties, many of whom feel neglected after a presidential campaign cycle in which just a dozen or so states were targeted by the Kerry campaign. "There is huge frustration that the party broadly defined was not well served," one longtime DNC member said. "The presidential candidate was well served, but in states not targeted by the presidential [candidate], we were completely shut out."
Mark Brewer, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party and the leader of the Association of Democratic State Chairs, said: "We're looking for a much more cooperative relationship with the DNC, with much more focus on state parties and on races down the ballot [below the presidential contest]. I'm the chair of a targeted state and I feel that way. Michigan got plenty of attention from the DNC and we're grateful for the financial support, but there's no question we've targeted ourselves into a corner. When you write off states in election after election, you make it harder and harder to win."
Brewer has asked his fellow state leaders to remain neutral for now in the contest to elect a new DNC chairman, in the hope that they ultimately could become the power brokers in deciding who succeeds McAuliffe. The state chairs have begun to invite candidates for the DNC chairmanship to meet in Orlando on Dec. 12 in what will be a potentially pivotal tryout before the February vote. "Together we can have quite an impact, if we choose," Brewer said.
There is no shortage of names being bandied about as prospective chairs, but only a few real candidates at this point. Kerry was pushing Vilsack, who appeared to be interested until he announced last week that he will not be a candidate. Knowledgeable Democrats say one reason for his decision was his desire to explore a 2008 presidential candidacy, something he would not be able to do as party chairman.
The 2008 race stands as a potential obstacle to Dean as well. After his unsuccessful bid for the presidential nomination this year, Dean expressed a desire to play a role in reshaping the party around the image of his grass-roots candidacy, which provided Democrats with a new model of small-donor fundraising that Kerry and the DNC used successfully after Dean was eliminated from the race.
Dean faces opposition among Democrats who think he is too liberal, but it is not clear that he will end up as a candidate for the chairmanship. Some Democrats say he will not run unless he is convinced he has the votes to win. Others say he must decide whether he is willing to pledge not to run in 2008, which at this point he may be reluctant to do.
"Right now he's not a candidate for anything," said Steve McMahon, a longtime media and strategic adviser to Dean. "He intends to be deeply involved in rebuilding the party and establishing a grass-roots network of activist and small donors. What role that takes is yet to be determined."
Organized labor, one of the most influential voices within the party, does not appear to have a consensus candidate at this point in the contest. Nor do African Americans or other minorities. Two prominent African Americans who have long been active in DNC activities have bowed out: Former labor secretary Alexis M. Herman said last week that she will not be a candidate, and Donna Brazile, who was campaign manager for Al Gore in 2000, took herself out earlier.
Two other African Americans have been mentioned as prospective chairs. One is former Denver mayor Wellington E. Webb, although he is disliked by some in organized labor because of clashes with unions when he was in office. Former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, who was unsuccessful in his 2002 Senate race in Texas, is the other.
Others draw attention as possible candidates. Among them are Rep. Martin Frost (D-Tex.), who lost his bid for reelection after his district was redrawn in the controversial remapping of Texas at the hands of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R). Some Democrats believe it would be good for the party to have a southerner as chair, which might help Frost. Others point to former Georgia governor Roy Barnes or Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner as other possible southern choices.
Former White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes is another possible candidate. Other announced or prospective candidates include New York businessman and Democratic donor Leo J. Hindery Jr.; Donnie Fowler, political director for Gore in 2000 and the son of former DNC chairman Don Fowler; and Simon B. Rosenberg, founder of the New Democrat Network.
Given their stature within the party, an endorsement -- quietly or publicly -- by former president Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) could give someone a big boost. Ickes is seen as close to the Clintons but there is no indication that they are backing him. "If they've got a candidate, I don't know who it is," one former Clinton White House official said.
Another official who is close to the former president said he doubted either of the Clintons will actively support anyone for the chairmanship. "At the end of the day they're likely to have an interest in who it is and [want] to be comfortable [with the choice] rather than taking someone and promoting them," this Democrat said.
Former chair Fowler said the new chairman must be able to fashion and deliver the party's message while tending to party building in the states and figuring out how to unite the various factions. While noting a personal preference for his son's candidacy, Fowler added, "I'm confident we'll find somebody. I'm not sure that person has been found yet."