Dean's 50-State Strategy Continues to Generate Debate

Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, turns over the convention gavel to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Denver.
Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, turns over the convention gavel to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Denver. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
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By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 26, 2008

DENVER, Aug. 25 -- When Howard Dean officially opened the Democratic National Convention on Monday night, he could look with satisfaction at the assembled delegates from all 50 states, knowing that many more states are in play this campaign season than were before he took over the party.

"Looking out from this podium tonight, I see this diverse assembly of Democrats as a testament to the strength and unity of our party and the fruition of our 50-state strategy," the party chairman told the throng as he gaveled the convention to session. "While the Democratic Party is the oldest continuing party in the world, I can also see that we are the most vibrant, inclusive and energized party, and we are ready to compete in all 50 states in November.

But with the Democratic National Committee still scrambling for cash and a more defined role in the presidential campaign, Dean's tenure at the helm is as debated now as it was when he stormed to power after his 2004 primary defeat. Democratic leaders are quick to praise his vision of expanding the party's reach beyond the narrow swath of swing states that dominated party organizing for more than a decade. But the gap between Dean's vision of an expanded battlefield and his execution of a plan that could turn those battlefields blue remains open to question.

"I think he's doing well," said Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). "I wish he could raise more money. That would help us. But I have to say his 50-state strategy turned out to be just what we needed."

"The problem was not his concept; the concept has been vindicated," said a senior party official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as to not reopen old wounds. "It was the implementation."

For Dean, such guarded praise actually represents progress. After his spectacular collapse in 2004, Dean took over the party determined to show that the Internet activists and grass-roots organizers who propelled his long-shot campaign to momentary front-runner status could be harnessed for a more lasting ascent to power.

Dean plowed money into a nationwide database of Democratic voters, available to every party candidate, from White House hopefuls to school board contestants; put state Democratic communications directors on the national payroll; and instituted performance standards for local party operations. It was expensive, but now, for about $120,000 to $150,000 a year per state, the structures put into place are seen as sustainable.

"We don't know where lightning is going to strike," Dean said Monday in an interview, pointing to Alaska, where federal corruption investigations have put House and Senate seats held by Republicans for decades within into Democratic reach and have made Sen. Barack Obama competitive. "It doesn't make sense to pick 30 states and say, 'This is where we're going to spend our money.' You don't know what's going to happen."

But more traditional organizers, such as Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), now Democratic Caucus chairman, and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), openly feuded with Dean, convinced that Democrats needed to lock down the core Midwestern and Northeastern battleground states that former vice president Al Gore and Sen. John F. Kerry carried in 2000 and 2004, rather than focus on a few others, such as Ohio and Florida, to secure the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. To them, organizing in Virginia and Alaska was folly, as long as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio were not sure bets.

That view could well be vindicated in November if Obama does not capture states such as Colorado, Virginia and North Carolina -- and Sen. John McCain simply wins the same battlegrounds that put President Bush over the top in 2004. But for now, Democrats, especially Red State Democrats, are giving Dean credit as the visionary who paved the way for Obama's efforts in the Mountain West and Republican South. New polling this week showed Obama with a narrow lead in Colorado, and he remains competitive in Virginia, New Mexico and even Montana.

"I can tell you, there are a whole number of congressional seats that are competitive today because Howard took a national strategy," said Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.). "Virginia certainly has benefited from his strategy. I think he deserves a lot of credit, frankly."

The issue now is money -- not so much Dean's ability to raise it but his propensity to spend it. From Jan. 1, 2001, when Terence R. McAuliffe took over the committee, through March 31, 2004, the DNC raised approximately $127 million in funds that could be spent directly on campaign activities. Between Jan. 1, 2005, and March 2008, the DNC raised $190 million, considerably more.

But the DNC had $27.5 million in the bank at this time four years ago, as opposed to $4.4 million now.

Dean aides say that money was well spent, creating organizations in all 50 states upon which Obama has been able to piggyback his campaign, reaching deep into an untapped electorate and developing the DNC's most complete national voter database ever. The investment will pay dividends not just in November but for years to come, they say.

His critics do not contest that, but they contend he could have done the same organizing for far less money. Instead, he cut large checks to state party chairmen and hoped for the best. In some states, that has happened. In others, the party ended up with deceased Democratic voters and disconnected phone numbers in their databases.

"It turned out to be more of a way to buy off party organizations than got things done," the party official said.

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