Former Vermont governor Howard Dean formally entered the race for chairman of the Democratic National Committee yesterday, putting his 2008 presidential ambitions on ice and plunging Democrats into a debate about how to rejuvenate a party that has steadily lost power in the past decade.
Dean was the front-runner for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination until his campaign imploded in Iowa a year ago. He is both the most prominent candidate to succeed Terence R. McAuliffe and the one whose presence in the race creates the most controversy.
In a letter to DNC members and to his followers, Dean promised a reform-oriented chairmanship with an emphasis on grass-roots organizing and party-building.
"The Democratic Party needs a vibrant, forward-thinking, long-term presence in every single state and we must be willing to contest every race at every level," he wrote. "We will only win when we show up and fight for the issues important to all of us."
Critics say his election next month would compromise the party's efforts to win voters in the South and in conservative areas of the Midwest, exposing Democrats to the charge that they are weak on defense and terrorism, and have been captured by their left wing.
The DNC race remains a jumbled contest, although Dean's entry gives the contest a focal point it lacked, with others jockeying to present themselves as the alternative to the former governor.
Former representative Martin Frost (Tex.), who lost his reelection bid in November in part because of the new Texas redistricting plan, is stressing his experience as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and his red-state roots.
Former representative Timothy J. Roemer (Ind.), who was on the independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, has offered himself as a chairman who would be strong on defense and who would help overcome the values gap with the Republicans.
Former Denver mayor Wellington E. Webb; Simon Rosenberg, founder of the New Democrat Network; Donnie Fowler, a veteran party strategist; and David J. Leland, former Ohio Democratic Party chairman, complete the field of announced candidates. Among those supporting Rosenberg is Joe Trippi, who was Dean's campaign manager but had a falling-out with Dean after he left the campaign.
Dean said earlier he would become a candidate for the DNC post only if he were confident of winning the job. In an interview yesterday, he said, "We don't have a majority, but we're making very strong progress. . . . We do think we have some momentum."
He also ruled out using the DNC post as a steppingstone to a second presidential campaign, saying he would commit to serving four years if elected. Dean said no Democrat can win in 2008 unless state parties are rebuilt and the national party overcomes what he said is a Republican advantage on organizing and delivering a consistent message.
Some Democrats had hoped Dean, who made opposition to the Iraq war the centerpiece of his presidential campaign, would not become a candidate for the DNC post. They were outspoken yesterday in their criticism of his candidacy.
"I think Dean did a tremendous job in the primaries -- energizing people, making statements of principle -- and that he has a lot to contribute to the debate," said Dan Gerstein, former press secretary to Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.). "That said, I think he would be a disastrous choice to head the party because of the image he projects on national security."
Dean, who was making calls and conducting interviews from what was labeled the "Kerry Suite" of a local hotel, dismissed that criticism, saying he is less liberal than critics suggest, particularly on fiscal issues. "The Democratic Party is a centrist party, and I'm in the center of the party," he said.
But he signaled no desire to shift the party to the right to do anything other than battle President Bush, saying the problem is not the Democrats' positions. "The problem is that the Republican propaganda machine is better than ours," he said.
Dean's is not the only candidacy to provoke debate and division within the party. Abortion rights supporters are riled by the recent entry of Roemer, who opposes abortion. Roemer, in an interview, said he would not try to change the party platform language on abortion, but said that Democrats should be "inclusive and tolerant" and reflect both sides of the abortion debate.
"The Republican Party, with [California Gov.] Arnold Schwarzenegger and [former New York mayor] Rudy Giuliani, reflects both views," he said.
Kate Michelman, former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said Roemer's election would threaten the party's commitment to abortion rights. She said she is weighing whether to run for the job and would, at a minimum, urge the DNC to restate its commitment to abortion rights. "The chair of the Democratic Party should be one whose record and views reflect the core values of the party, including for women's fundamental rights," she said.
Roemer said he was urged to run by Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Spokesmen for both leaders said the two had encouraged Roemer but have not endorsed his candidacy.