NEW YORK, Jan. 29 -- As Howard Dean campaigns here for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, his supporters feel an eerie echo of his campaign a year ago for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Once again, he is the prohibitive favorite to win with just two weeks to go before the voting. Once again, the other candidates in the field, trailing badly, are hoping to position themselves as the most viable alternative to Dean. Once again, Dean is making a red-meat appeal to the liberal base of the party.
"We cannot be Republican-light if you want to win elections," he says to cheers here at the DNC's Eastern Regional meeting Saturday, the last gathering before party members vote on Feb. 12 for a successor to Terence R. McAuliffe. While other candidates counsel a move to the right and a drastic change for an enfeebled party, a sanguine Dean says, Democrats "cannot change our convictions."
Last year, of course, Dean's front-running candidacy collapsed in the Iowa caucus and the former Vermont governor's subsequent outburst. But if Dean cannot win this race, in which he faces a group of six little-known party workers and former office holders, that would really be reason to scream.
"There are some parallels," Jimmy Dean, the candidate's brother, says of the comparison to Dean's 2004 campaign. "It has crossed people's minds."
But there are reasons for Dean to be hopeful that history will not repeat itself. So far, party insiders see little sign that the anti-Dean forces are uniting behind an alternative candidate; indeed, Harold Ickes, who was the favorite of former president Bill Clinton to have the DNC job but declined, threw his support on Friday to Dean. Another sweetener for the anti-Dean crowd: He has said he will not run for president in 2008 if he gets the DNC job.
About 50 of the 447 DNC voting members have already announced support for Dean, far more than for any other candidate. (Endorsements, though, are a tricky business: The online publication Hotline found that the seven candidates have claimed the endorsements of 75 state Democratic chairmen, far exceeding the number of states and territories.) If the state party chairmen, who meet Sunday and Monday, do not endorse another candidate, even Dean's challengers say the race will essentially be over.
This year's contest particularly suits Dean. In the past, party leaders were tapped by sitting presidents, or ran discreet campaigns among party elders. This time, the seven candidates are vying for votes on a nationwide dog-and-pony show, a series of public debates climaxing in Saturday's session in New York. It has showcased the ideological rifts in the party and opened the way for the type of retail politics in which Dean specializes.
In their speeches and answers to questions at the meeting here, the other candidates try to position themselves as Dean alternatives.
"We need a chair who doesn't only represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," former representative Tim Roemer (Ind.) told a quiet crowd, referring to one of Dean's lines from last year. Another candidate, party tactician Donnie Fowler, tries to debunk the Dean inevitability, saying, "This is your decision, DNC voters, it's not the pundits'." Ex-Denver mayor Wellington Webb challenges Dean on geography, calling for a candidate who has an appeal "not only in the northeastern part of the United States."
The zeitgeist is much the same in the hotel hospitality suites where the candidates privately woo delegates. Dean greets dozens of supporters under a huge chandelier in a large room on the hotel's main floor. Others have modest rooms on the second floor.
Webb has all of four people in his suite. The fruit and pastries are largely untouched. "I think Howard has always been the favorite," he admits, saying he would need some last-minute dealmaking to win. "If Dean doesn't win on the first ballot, we'll have an Abraham Lincoln-type situation with people forming alliances," he said.
A couple of doors down, former representative Martin Frost (Tex.), often cited as the leading alternative to Dean, is faring little better than Webb. He has eight people in the room and an equally pristine buffet. A spokesman, Tom Eisenhower, says his man is still the leading anti-Dean.
Judging by hospitality-suite attendance, the leading Dean alternative is Fowler, son of a former Democratic national chairman. But that may also be because Fowler has the best giveaways, including New York's famous H&H bagels, South Carolina wafers, grits and barbecue sauce. Fowler, who asserts that he has spent 81 hours on his cell phone this month, frames the race this way: "It's gonna come down to me, Frost and Dean."