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The Democrats' Mini-Deans

One of the things motivating activists in southern states in particular, according to both Meek and Willett, is that party leaders have focused too narrowly on winning state and local races, while ceding presidential elections to Republicans. And in some cases, Democrats have become too dysfunctional to win state races. In Arkansas, Willett ran on the need to regroup and build a cohesive state organization for next year's election to replace Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is term-limited.

Democrats still control the Arkansas state House and Senate and hold five of the seven statewide constitutional offices. Willett said that proves Democrats can still win in the South -- but not with a top-down strategy.

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"If Dems are going to run and win, they've got to get back out on the grass-roots level," said Willett, a district director for U.S. Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.). "Republicans are picking up these states that are turning red because we've let them outwork us and turn around some of these issues that have been our issues into their own."

In his campaign against Oliver, Willett argued that while state Democrats were becoming ever more proficient at the fundraising and technical part of running campaigns, the insular Little Rock-based party had virtually ceded vast swaths of the state outside Little Rock to the GOP.

"I was very very impressed with Howard Dean and what he was wants to do. I have every intention to work with him to rebuild the Arkansas party the same way as he wants to rebuild the national party," Willett said. "We're not just going to roll over and play dead in these states. And I'm looking forward to developing a southern strategy that allows us to go back into some of these states, like Mississippi, where Democrats are no longer competitive."

The natural inclination is to assume that the grass-roots surge is the equivalent of liberals taking over the party. But Meek, Willett and others insist that the movement isn't ideological. It's more about moving the party back to the organizational model that has worked in the past.

Willett said Dean -- who was endorsed by the NRA in eight consecutive gubernatorial races and pushed for balanced budgets in Vermont -- plays better in Arkansas than some might believe. Nonetheless, the grass-roots movement is not so much ideological as it is practical, he and Meek insist.

In North Carolina, Easley -- who campaigned on the state's improving economy and rising public school test scores -- was seen by the grass roots of his party as aloof, according to some state Democrats and media reports in the state. He skipped major gatherings and did little to personally court the people who do the door-knocking and phone banking in far-flung places.

"There are in North Carolina thousands of people who work very hard in the trenches to make things happen, and they don't think their voices matter very much to the institution," Meek said. "I think it's largely an issue of having a voice, feeling like they're valued and have an important place within the party and have access to the resources on the ground to get the job done."

And the job includes more than electing one politician. The way Meek and Willett see it, it's about rebuilding a tattered party from the bottom up, one step at a time.

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