Former Vermont governor Howard Dean took control of the race for Democratic National Committee chairman yesterday by easily winning the endorsement of the Association of State Democratic Chairs and later picking up the support of one of his rivals, former Denver mayor Wellington Webb.
Dean showed surprising strength in capturing a first-ballot endorsement from the state party leaders, and yesterday's developments left him in a strong position to claim his party's chairmanship when the full DNC meets here later this month, unless anti-Dean forces within the party quickly coalesce around one of his remaining rivals. "This is an important step for our campaign, but we will not stop working until the final vote is cast on Feb. 12," Dean said in a statement.
A Feb. 12 vote will decide Howard Dean's Democratic National Committee campaign.
The state chairs' vote for Dean overturned a decision by the group's executive committee, which narrowly voted on Sunday to recommend an endorsement for party strategist Donnie Fowler, the son of former national chairman Don Fowler.
In a conference call among the full membership yesterday, Dean won 56 votes to Fowler's 21. Former representative Martin Frost of Texas was a distant third, with five votes, followed by Webb, former representative Tim Roemer of Indiana and New Democrat Network founder Simon Rosenberg, each with three.
Webb withdrew from the race hours after the state chairs' vote, saying it had become "mathematically clear that Howard Dean has the votes to win on the first ballot," a view echoed by some of Dean's early supporters.
Dean's candidacy has caused considerable unease among some Democrats in the South and Midwest, who fear that his victory will be interpreted as a lurch to the left by the national party, and among some Democratic leaders who worry that he is too outspoken and undisciplined to serve as party chairman. But Dean has tapped into the same grass-roots energy that initially fueled his presidential campaign and has impressed many DNC members as someone who can reinvigorate the party after its demoralizing losses last November.
Dean still has several potential hurdles in his path, including a meeting today of the AFL-CIO's political committee. Frost has been working hard to win the AFL endorsement, but other Democrats said labor could easily decide not to make a group endorsement, leaving individual unions and their members free to vote as they wish.
Despite Frost's weak showing yesterday, spokesman Tom Eisenhauer said, "the fundamentals of the race haven't changed much. Frost is the only candidate who can do the whole job of strategist, spokesperson, organizer and fundraiser."
Fowler spokesman Jamal Simmons said the state chairs' vote, even though it reversed the executive committee's Sunday recommendation, ratified Fowler as the alternative to Dean. "For those who feel nervous about Dean's chairmanship, the question is who is the strongest horse left in the race," he said. "That is clearly Donnie Fowler."
Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer, who heads the state chairs' association, called Dean's support "quite impressive" and predicted that a substantial majority of the group's 112 members will back Dean when the Democratic National Committee votes on Feb. 12 and that other DNC members will follow the group's lead. "I think we have given him a very significant boost to becoming chairman of the DNC," he said in an interview.
Dean supporters interpreted yesterday's vote as decisive. "I think this means that Howard Dean is absolutely going to win the national chairmanship," said Scott Maddox, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, one of the first state leaders to endorse Dean.
Others who opposed Dean in the state chairs' vote predicted his eventual victory. "When you look at the support Governor Dean is getting, this race is pretty close to being over," said Kathy Sullivan, the New Hampshire Democratic chair who voted for Webb yesterday but who quickly announced her support for Dean. "Based on the vote and other endorsements, if [Dean's] not over the threshold by the end of the week, I'll be wicked surprised."
California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres said Dean had proved himself in the presidential campaign, first by tapping the Internet and the party's grass roots for political and financial support, and then by working tirelessly for Democratic nominee John F. Kerry and others after he lost. "He showed he's not a loser who walks away from a fight," Torres said.