Howard Dean, whose high-flying presidential bid collapsed in disarray one year ago, won the post of Democratic chairman on Saturday and promised an aggressive drive to mobilize voters and rebuild the party “from the grass roots up.”
“Today will be the beginning of the re-emergence of the Democratic Party,” the former Vermont governor told Democratic National Committee members after he was elected party chairman by acclamation.
“We are going to recognize that our strength lies at the grass roots,” Dean said. “Democrats will have to match or exceed the Republicans’ ability to motivate voters.”
Dean promised to plunge immediately into the effort to broaden the party’s appeal in all 50 states and lead Democrats back from a bruising election in November, when they lost the White House and more seats in both houses of Congress.
Some Democrats have questioned whether Dean, an early and fierce critic of President Bush and the Iraq war whose blunt talk often sparked controversy on the campaign trail, was the right choice to lead a Democratic resurgence in conservative Southern and mountain states.
But Dean countered those concerns in recent months by wooing party leaders with promises to focus on state operations, energize the grass roots and build an army of small donors similar to the one that supported his presidential bid.
“We cannot run 18-state presidential campaigns and expect to win,” Dean told DNC members on Saturday. “People will vote for Democratic candidates in Texas and Utah and West Virginia if we knock on their door, introduce ourselves and tell them what we believe. That’s what organization allows us to do.”
Dean reminded party insiders that Republicans had been out of power for 40 years in Congress before reclaiming majorities in 1994.
“It won’t take us that long, not if we stand up for what we believe in, organize at the local level, and recognize that this party’s strength doesn’t come from the consultants down, it comes from the grass roots up,” Dean said.
“If we want to win nationally, we have to win locally,” he said.
Dean told reporters he planned to make overtures to groups that have been hard on Democrats, including evangelical Christians. He said he expected to be on the road almost full time, with his biggest focus in the South and West.
Republican critics of Dean have welcomed his election as chairman, hoping it will feed the image of Democrats as a party of Northeastern liberals. But Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman took the high road.
“Howard Dean’s energy and passion will add to the political discourse in this country, and he will be a strong leader for his party,” Mehlman said.
The post offers vindication and a new role for Dean, the one-time presidential front-runner who attracted young voters to the party and broke Democratic records with his Internet-based fund raising before his campaign ran out of steam.
Dean said he would bring some of the innovative techniques of his presidential campaign to the Democratic post.
“We are going to use all of the power and potential of technology as part of an aggressive outreach to meet and include voters, to work with your state parties, and to get our message out,” he said.
Dean’s low-key acceptance speech on Saturday resurrected some of the themes of his presidential campaign. He criticized Bush for introducing a budget that “deliberately conceals the cost of their fiscal recklessness.”
The proposal ignored the costs of the Iraq war while cutting education, children’s health and veteran’s benefits, Dean said. “Republicans cannot be trusted with your money,” he said, repeating a frequent line in his presidential campaign.
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