Democrats look to Dean to help turn the Republican tide

HOWARD DEAN, whose "scream" on Iowa caucus night in January 2004 is an indelible image of the last Democratic presidential race, is set to become the party's organisational chief as it struggles to turn back the Republican tide in US politics.

Barring the last-minute emergence of an "anyone but Dean" candidate, the controversial former Vermont governor seems all but certain to be elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee in its decisive vote on 12 February.

The last serious opposition fell away this week when the former Texas congressman, Martin Frost, favoured by the traditional Democratic establishment, pulled out of the contest. Earlier, Mr Dean had won the backing of a majority of state party chairs and substantial portions of organised labour.

His remaining declared rivals are now three, among them Simon Rosenberg, head of the centrist New Democrat Network. But none appears to have a realistic chance, despite the misgivings of the Democratic congressional leadership about Mr Dean.

The next DNC chairman will automatically become one of the party's most prominent spokesmen, alongside John Kerry, the 2004 presidential nominee, and Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate. His main job will be to reinvigorate a drifting and demoralised party - resoundingly defeated in the 2004 congressional elections - in time for the 2006 mid- terms and the 2008 presidential election.

Mr Dean would meet two key requirements cited by most dispassionate observers: he is not a "Washington insider" - the breed blamed for being out of touch with voters in 2004 - and he has a proven ability to galvanise the base, as can be attested by anyone who saw him on the campaign trail when he raised a record $50m (pounds 27m) before the first primary.

But his drawbacks are equally obvious. He can be too outspoken for his own good. Most dangerous, perhaps, he is easily stereotyped as a "north-eastern liberal", largely due to his opposition to the Iraq war. As such, he will struggle to improve the party's position in the South and swaths of the West and Midwest.

Indeed, Republicans can hardly hide their glee at the prospect of a Dean chairmanship. They will use it to portray Democrats as liberal radicals, representing only the "latte set" on either coast. "He will reinforce all their worst instincts," Rich Bond, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said. "His style and message ... will narrow his party's options rather than expand them."

Mr Dean is best remembered for his almost primeval "scream" after finishing third in the Iowa caucus, having been the early front-runner for the Democratic nomination. The following week, he lost in New Hampshire and was never again a serious contender.

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