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Liberals watching to see if Dean keeps his backbone



Published: Fri, February 25, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Party faithful watch for an 'in-your-face' attitude.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A year ago, an activist group from the Seattle area presented Howard Dean with a thin, golden statue of a backbone.

The Oscar-like award honored the former Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont governor for standing up against the Iraq war and other Bush administration policies.

Ohio Reps. Stephanie Tubbs Jones and Dennis Kucinich also have received the award, Tubbs Jones for objecting to Ohio presidential vote and Kucinich for his opposition to the Iraq war.

Now, as Dean settles into his new role as head of the Democratic Party, that golden spine has come to represent, for many liberal Democrats, the potential in Dean for developing a tougher, take-no-prisoners attitude among the party faithful.

"There's no gut-check required for Dean. Dean just needs to be Dean," said Dal LaMagna, founder of the Progressive Government Institute. "He's the kind of person who's a collaborator, a facilitator. He's not someone who has a clique or who will only talk to people in his clique."

Can't wait to get started

In an e-mail sent to supporters Thursday, Dean said he has gotten an overwhelming response for input on the party's agenda from "grass-roots Democrats."

"So many Democrats can't wait to get started -- They want to grow our party from the ground up. And that's exactly what we're going to do," said Dean, who was meeting with local party leaders in upstate New York on Thursday. He planned to travel next to Kansas and Mississippi.

Bill Moyer, executive director of the Backbone Campaign, said he hopes this means Dean will continue to be a leader among liberal Democrats and that his chairmanship will mark a turning point for the party.

"Dean is the link to this progressive movement," Moyer said. "The Democratic party can either use that or squander it."

Find a message

Kucinich said the problem with the Democratic Party is that it needs to stop talking in generalities and start articulating its message: "I don't know why the Democratic Party even exists if it can't advocate for universal health care and ending the war in Iraq."

As for whether Dean will be able to make that change, Kucinich said "everyone has to give him a chance to show what he can do."

Dean was elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee two weeks ago on a platform that he would rebuild state parties, take the offensive against Republicans and do a better job explaining the party's positions on issues. He replaces outgoing party chief Terry McAuliffe.

Shift in his role

As chairman, the normally blunt Dean appears to be trying to shift his role from flamboyant presidential candidate to cautious party spokesman.

Charles Franklin, a political scientist from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said this balancing act between pleasing the more liberal parts of the party while also appealing to middle-of-the-road voters will be Dean's biggest challenge.

"Howard Dean almost certainly has to disappoint his strongest liberal supporters simply because he's going to have to serve a broader Democratic Party," Franklin said.

TrueMajority ACTION, a Vermont group founded by Ben & amp; Jerry's owner Ben Cohen, urged 13,500 members to write letters to Democratic leaders on Dean's behalf, illustrating the power of grass-roots campaigning.

"That's how he [Dean] got in there as chairman, so there would be no reason for him to turn his back on it," said project director Duane Peterson. "It worked."




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