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Howard Dean, a Victim of His Own Success?

As Democratic National Committee chairman, Howard Dean helped put a Democrat in the White House -- but made his share of enemies in the party along the way. As his DNC tenure ends, he's a free agent.
As Democratic National Committee chairman, Howard Dean helped put a Democrat in the White House -- but made his share of enemies in the party along the way. As his DNC tenure ends, he's a free agent. (By Mark Wilson -- Getty Images)

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By Chris Cillizza And Perry Bacon Jr.
Monday, December 22, 2008

Former Vermont governor Howard Dean, the man regarded by many sharp political operatives as the progenitor of President-elect Barack Obama's successful 2008 campaign, finds himself without an obvious next job as his tenure as head of the Democratic National Committee comes to an end.

Those closest to Dean insist that he has any number of job offers and spots on corporate boards at his fingertips, is traveling to Europe three times in early 2009 to advise progressive parties about the lessons learned from the 2008 campaign, and is speaking out on his pet issue -- health care.

And yet, it's hard not to see Dean as a lesson in how political hardball is played in Washington. Never liked by establishment party figures -- Dean publicly feuded with incoming White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) when the latter headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 2006 election cycle -- Dean finds himself on the outside looking in as a new Democratic administration comes to town.

Less than a week after Obama's victory last month, Dean announced he would not seek a second term as DNC chairman -- a decision cast by those friendly to Dean as his own but made with a recognition that the incoming president would like his own pick atop the party.

Dean then made a play to be secretary of health and human services in the Obama administration but was quickly shot down in favor of former senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, a confidante of the president-elect.

Dean's confrontational style and aversion to fundraising led to clashes with party leaders (Emanuel among others) during his four years at the helm of the DNC, but, in hindsight, some of his most controversial strategic moves paid off.

Dean was widely disparaged within the party for his "50-state strategy" -- a plan to put DNC-paid staffers on the ground in every state to ensure the party fielded a competitive slate of candidates. Yet, the 2006 and 2008 elections seemed to justify Dean's decision as Democrats won in such states as North Carolina, Virginia, Alabama, Kansas and Idaho -- places that, as recently as a few elections ago, were considered impenetrable.

"The winning strategy and business plan that Governor Dean put in place helped make Democrats competitive again up and down the ballot from Indiana to Alaska to Mississippi," said DNC spokeswoman Karen Finney.

A source familiar with Dean's 2004 presidential campaign and his DNC chairmanship argued not only that the former governor's presidential bid lay the technological foundation for Obama's successes but also that the chairman's unbending enforcement of the primary rules -- stripping Florida and Michigan of their delegates and their meaningfulness -- played a large role in Obama's victory over Hillary Rodham Clinton. "I guess it proves that no good deed goes unpunished," the source said.

Former Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi explained Dean's seeming denouement thusly: "Howard Dean was never afraid to challenge the established ways of the Democratic Party in Washington. That doesn't win you many friends in this town."

The Colorado Conundrum

New York's David Paterson isn't the only Democratic governor facing a complicated Senate appointment with major implications for his party and a prominent political family.

With Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) accepting an appointment as interior secretary in the Obama administration, Democrats are closely watching who Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter will choose to replace him. Senate Democrats were worried enough about keeping the seat in this swing state that they tried to talk Salazar out of joining the Cabinet, and Colorado Republicans feel they have a much better shot of winning against a newly picked incumbent rather than they would against the popular Salazar.

Rittter faces a difficult situation. Salazar's older brother, John, holds a House seat in a relatively conservative district in western Colorado and his political skills and his last name could help in a statewide race. But handing the seat from one brother to the other might be politically difficult, and Democrats want to keep John Salazar's congressional district.

The other main contenders, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff and Rep. Ed Perlmutter, who represents a suburban Denver district, would all probably enter a general election favored to defeat a Republican opponent. But picking one of those three would require passing over Rep. Diane DeGette, the dean of the Democratic congressional delegation, who emphasized her interest in the seat last week. She told the Denver Post it was "ridiculous" a woman had not yet served as a senator or governor in the state.

Democrats worry she would be too liberal to win statewide, although Degette defended herself by arguing that Hickenlooper is "at least as liberal" as she, a comment unlikely to help either of their cases against the centrist Perlmutter. And Latino groups are pushing for Salazar -- especially since former transportation secretary Federico Peña took himself out of the running in the last few days.

Ritter has said little about the selection or his timetable, but because of the public interest he created an e-mail address (ussenate.comments@state.co.us.) where residents can lobby him on the choice.

No matter whom Ritter picks, the Democrats will have the advantage in a state that has trended sharply blue, as Democrats have won both houses of the state legislature, the governor's office and both Senate seats over the past four years.

Republicans consider Attorney General John Suthers a strong potential 2010 candidate. Former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway, who campaigned for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during the presidential election, passed on a Senate run this year, and Colorado GOP Chairman Dick Wadhams said he didn't expect the football star to make the Senate race his foray into public office.


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