Howard Dean seeks to rally demoralised Democrats

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The Independent US

The man with the scream is back. Less than 11 months after his concession speech on Iowa caucus night lifted political histrionics to a new level, Howard Dean is again fighting to be the saviour of the Democrats in the US.

This time the former Vermont governor is not seeking the 2008 presidential nomination for the White House - a chase likely to be led by Hillary Clinton, the former vice-presidential nominee John Edwards and several Democratic governors from the Midwest and South. But if Mr Dean's sights are set lower, the goal is scarcely less significant: the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, a post that will be critical to the development of a strategy to break the Republicans' entrenched dominance of national politics.

After John Kerry's defeat on 2 November, the nearest thing to a titular head of President George Bush's opposition is Nevada's Harry Reid, the Democratic minority leader in the Senate. The quiet-mannered but tenacious Mr Reid has many virtues, but he is not a galvanising figure. Whoever becomes DNC chairman is likely to wield unusual power - which is why Mr Dean is again the lightning rod in the debate over the party's future.

After the Iowa caucuses, his once successful campaign imploded. But the extent of the debacle of 2 November, at first half hidden by Mr Kerry's narrow defeat, is now becoming apparent. And as it does, Mr Dean's stock is rising again - at least in certain sections of the party.

The "scream" might have epitomised all that was wrong with Mr Dean the candidate. But it was he who pioneered the internet fundraising methods that would later keep Mr Kerry afloat. Above all, no one excited the party base like Mr Dean. Now as then, however, no one divides the party quite like him either.

Predictably, since he let it be known he might stand in February's election for the DNC chair, a fierce whispering campaign against him is well under way. Too flaky, some say. Too far to the left, contend others, arguing that the Republicans' success reflects an America steadily shifting to the right, where moral issues trump bread-and-butter matters such as the economy.

On a "farewell tour" of North Carolina last week after his single term as senator, Mr Edwards insisted that the party had to learn how to appeal to Middle America and "broaden its base of support".

Bill Clinton, poster boy for Democratic centrists, pitched in too, urging the party "not to be afraid" of talking about God and faith. But the decidedly secular Mr Dean has powerful defenders as well - some of them among the state governors who were once his colleagues and who, like him, argue that party strategists, obsessed with Washington and its ways, have lost touch with great swathes of the country.

As the left points out, the "Republican-lite" policies pursued since Mr Clinton left power have brought nothing but grief - two stinging presidential losses and heavy setbacks in the Congressional elections of 2002 and 2004. At the same time, the party has virtually given up on entire regions like the South, further diminishing its chances of regaining power.

"The problem for the Democrats is that they're doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result," wrote Joe Trippi, manager of the 2004 Dean White House campaign and architect of its $50m (£25.7m) internet operation, in a powerful and very public piece in the Wall Street Journal last week. "That's the definition of insanity."

The Trippi recipe is simple - Democrats "must reconnect with the energy of the grass roots". There should be grass roots councils in every county, he says, "to develop ideas that come from the people, instead of the experts in DC". And, he adds for good measure, "very few good ideas come from the centre, they tend to be mediocre".

Thus the battle lines have been drawn. Next weekend Democratic state party chairmen assemble in Orlando, Florida, for a meeting that Mr Dean and other contenders will address. Normally the job of national chairman is in their gift, but not on this occasion. The state parties are divided, and, as one participant acknowledged: "Right now everyone's waiting to see what Howard's going to do."