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CARL LEUBSDORF Democrats should not give Dean a soap box



Published: Fri, February 11, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Howard Dean will complete one of the more remarkable recent political comebacks on Saturday when he is elected the new Democratic National Committee chairman.

But Dean has a lot to learn if he is to convert his energy and grass-roots support into a successful chairmanship and to overcome the doubts of critics who regard him as an egocentric showboater who will give the party too liberal an image.

Above all, the former Vermont governor and unsuccessful presidential candidate will have to do more than give lip service to the fact that the inside aspects of the job are more important than its outside role. And he'll have to act like the director of the show rather than one of its stars.

Here are some key points in the forthcoming education of Howard Dean, party chairman:

UUnderstand what the job is. It's nitty-gritty, nuts-and-bolts politics, the kind that takes place behind the scenes and bolsters candidates who run for office. It's hours on the phone raising money. It's endless rubber-chicken dinners in garden spots from Walla Walla, Wash., to Altoona, Pa.

UIt's showing the party flag and, for the most part, not making news. And it's mediating among party factions and interest groups, not championing the causes dear to just a few.

UUnderstand what the job isn't. You weren't picked to be the main party spokesman, as much as you'd relish that role. That's the job of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi; Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who heads the Democratic Governors Association; and the dozens of Democratic officeholders and candidates at the federal and state levels.

Reid and Pelosi may not be the most effective, telegenic representatives the party has ever had, but remember: Your electorate is 500 party functionaries; theirs is thousands of real voters and elected members of Congress.

UBroaden the ranks of the party's top leadership to help you implement your 50-state strategy. In particular, put someone in a key post who speaks Southern -- despite the party's dire prospects in Dixie -- as well as someone from the West.

Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, the Democrats' probable candidate for governor of Virginia in November, is unlikely to want to see you much, and other Southerners may show a similar lack of enthusiasm. But the national party needs someone who is welcome and can help raise money throughout the country, not just in its liberal enclaves.

A 50-state strategy also means mobilizing other Texas Democrats besides the Deaniacs in Austin.

UUnderstand that the national party's No. 1 goal for 2006 should be to help elect governors and state legislators.

To be sure, the party's and the nation's interests will be served by electing more House and Senate members. But regaining control of Congress will be hard without a lot of cooperation from President Bush and some luck.

Besides, that's the main job of the congressional leadership, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, though some financial and logistical help is always helpful.

But one key to the party's future, besides the 2008 presidential election, is an increased voice in the congressional reapportionment process following the 2010 census. Democrats must reverse the gains that similar control enabled the GOP to score after 2000 in such states as Texas, Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

UKeep your pledge not to seek the presidency in 2008. Nothing would be worse for your credibility than to look for a loophole in your repeated promises to stay out of the next presidential race if you won the party chairmanship.

Besides, there's no real evidence you could win.

UBe satisfied if you can raise a load of money, hire some able associates and, in a year, get some media notices that you've not been as bad for the party as many pundits now think you'll be.

The party's greatest modern national chairman, Bob Strauss, was viewed with suspicion as a conservative Texan when he won a divided race for chairman after the 1972 election. But four years later, his efforts helped the Democrats regain the White House.

X Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.




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