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Last Updated: Saturday, 12 February, 2005, 16:47 GMT
Can Dean save the Democrats?

By James Coomarasamy
BBC Washington correspondent

Howard Dean
Howard Dean: From loser to leader
Howard Dean, the fallen internet insurgent, is enjoying a resurgence.

He is taking the reins of the Democratic Party - the same party that passed him over as their presidential nominee in 2004.

The man who loved to say that he was from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party has the backing of grassroots supporters who feel the party's move to the centre has made it little more than a faint echo of their Republican opponents.

Worried Democrats are looking for someone to lead them out of the political wilderness and back into power.

But there is great concern among some Democrats - and barely controlled glee from their Republican opponents - that Mr Dean, a failed presidential candidate, will lead them, not to victory, but to even greater defeats.

Grassroots enthusiasm

A year after his presidential bid went down in flames, the Capitol City Brewery in Washington was the venue for Mr Dean's speech just days before he was elected the party's leader.

Unlike in the presidential primaries last year, his opponents have all faded away one but one. However, he was not counting his chickens.

"No celebrations tonight. I remember just before Iowa," Mr Dean told the enthusiastic crowd.

Ah, Iowa. Four letters that send a shiver down the spine of Dean supporters and cause most Americans to recall his moment - well, his two seconds, to be precise - of madness.

That scream, after his third place defeat in Iowa marked him out as an unhinged liberal, a liability.
Former US presidential candidate Howard Dean
Expect to hear a lot of the Dean scream from Republican opponents
So why, just 12 months later, is his party almost unanimously endorsing him?

Pollster John Zogby said: "Howard Dean showed during the campaign, not only that he has a lot of energy, when he was running for President, but that he understands the party's infrastructure. The party needs to be built from the bottom up."

And the grassroots turned out in force at the brewery rally to hear a politician who inspires devotion - even in some unlikely quarters.

"I'm a registered Republican and I'm ashamed of it. Howard Dean is a prince," he said.

Image makeover

But are the Democrats making a fatal mistake?

Not only is Howard Dean's image - fairly or unfairly - that of a political loser, but in some quarters, he doesn't have an image at all.

During the election, the Democrats lost some of their usually solid African-American support.

Community leaders, such as Samuel Gresham in Columbus, Ohio, say Mr Dean remains an unknown quantity to the black community at large:

"I don't think right now - because he did not survive the primaries to get out into the hinterland so that people could poke and prod him - specifically in the black community - that, in the African-American community, our knowledge base is that great."

And there's going to be some poking and prodding from some less sympathetic parties. Expect to hear the "I have a scream remix" on the airwaves pretty soon.

The Democratic Party clearly has to consolidate its left, but it also has to appeal to the centre
John Zogby, pollster

While previous party chairmen have tended to be technocrats, Mr Dean's profile will make him a prime target for republicans, eager to paint him and the whole party as being out of touch with the average American.

According to Mr Zogby, if he is to avoid being a liability, Dean the maverick will have to become Dean the reconciler:

"The Democratic Party clearly has to consolidate its left, but it also has to appeal to the centre," he said.

"It has to understand family values. It has to understand the role of religion in people's lives. It has to understand that there are other positions on other critical social issues like abortion and guns, for example," he added.

Hungry for victory

And this week Mr Dean has been focusing on issues, such as national security, where Democrats lose out to Republicans.

But influential trade union leaders say that - in his new role as party chairman - Mr Dean should be concentrating on organising the party, not pushing its positions.

"As head of the DNC he is not running for president, he is not running for governor and he's got to tread softly in terms of the issues," says Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

"And people who are debating the law or fighting the battles up on the hill or in state houses - they are the ones who should be speaking on the issues," he added.

Is he worried that Mr Dean will tip over and start speaking on the issues?

"I'm always worried. We haven't won anything for a long time," he said.

This week, the Democrats have proved they can organise a love-in in a brewery.

Their new chairman must prove he can organise something far more difficult - electoral success.

Dean set to lead Democratic Party
08 Feb 05 |  Americas
Dean backs Kerry for White House
25 Mar 04 |  Americas
Dean quits US presidential race
18 Feb 04 |  Americas
'Dean scream' becomes online hit
23 Jan 04 |  Americas
Profile: Howard Dean
18 Feb 04 |  Americas

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