The field of potential candidates for Democratic National Committee chairman shrank by two yesterday when former White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes and former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk announced they had decided not to enter the competition.
Kirk, the 2002 Democratic candidate for Senate in Texas, gave a boost to former House member and fellow Texan Martin Frost by endorsing his candidacy, while Ickes, a veteran party strategist, said he would defer supporting another candidate.
The decisions did only a little to clarify a contest that party leaders say remains wide open, with several Democrats energetically competing to succeed Terence R. McAuliffe and several others still trying to decide whether to run.
The battle for party chairman has taken on significance as an early indicator of the direction Democrats will take in the aftermath of John F. Kerry's loss to President Bush and the GOP's strengthened majorities in the House and Senate. The next party chairman will play an influential role, along with congressional leaders and governors, in determining where and when Democrats choose to confront Bush over the next two years and in organizing for the 2006 and 2008 elections.
The contest has ideological overtones -- with some Democrats arguing for a shift to the center to make the party more appealing to southern, western and rural voters -- and also will highlight the desire of many Democrats to strengthen state parties and maintain grass-roots energy and activism.
Frost is one of four candidates definitely in the race. The others are former Denver mayor Wellington E. Webb, New Democrat Network founder Simon B. Rosenberg and party strategist Donnie Fowler.
Former Vermont governor Howard Dean is exploring a run and has recruited several staff members should he enter the race. Former Michigan governor James J. Blanchard and Timothy J. Roemer, a former Indiana congressman and member of the panel that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, also are still mulling formal entries, but their decisions could be influenced by the amount of congressional or gubernatorial support they corral.
On Saturday, southern Democratic leaders will hold the first of four regional conferences for potential candidates. The full DNC membership will select a new chairman in early February in Washington.
Kirk, in a letter to DNC members, called Frost "the complete package for DNC chair" who has run and won in a Republican-dominated state. Frost also has been chairman of the party's congressional campaign committee. Kirk said family, career and his own political future persuaded him not to seek the post himself. "Should I decide to reenter public life, I would consider another run for the U.S. Senate, particularly if Senator [Kay Bailey] Hutchison [R] departs to run for governor of Texas," he said.
Ickes said he had concluded he does not have all the skills necessary to be a successful chairman, noting, "It's a really tough job." He also said the impact on his own consulting firm would have been too great.
Some Democrats continue to talk about trying to entice McAuliffe to extend his tenure, particularly if no current candidate catches fire.