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Chair War

Who can lead the Democratic Party out of the wilderness? As it turns out, many claim they can—all pointing in different directions.

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Even weeks after Election Day, the ballot-counting is finally finished in Montana and Washington. Even the recounting is done in Ohio, further narrowing the gap between John Kerry and the White House. But largely out of sight, without the benefit of a single attack ad, a crucial political campaign is raging.

Terry McAuliffe is in the last two months of his tumultuous four-year term as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. The race to replace him is wildly crowded. Eight candidates spoke to the Association of Democratic State Chairs last month, in a sort of Iowa primary for DNC aspirants. Several other contenders are floating their names or are being urged to enter.

The 447 voting members of the DNC who will pick the party’s new leader on February 12 are pure insiders: elected officials, labor leaders, major fund-raisers. Some of the contenders have familiar names. But what’s really needed is a handicapper’s guide to the field.


Howard Dean
Résumé:: The 56-year-old son of a Park Avenue investment banker, a Yale grad turned Vermont doctor turned moderate Vermont governor turned liberal antiwar presidential-front-runner phenom turned punch line.
Current job: Paid to make fun of himself in Yahoo commercials.
Why he’s chasing the DNC job: “[I’ve] concluded it’s faster to change the party from the inside,” he told Tim Russert. And even if he loses, Dean gives Dems and the media something besides The Scream to talk about when his name comes up.
Where he’d take the party: The appeal—or the repulsion—of Dean is as a passionate spokesman, not as an operator. “He’d be great for energizing the base,” says a DNC member who’s friendly with Dean. “But if he gets the job, it becomes all about Howard, and not about the party.”
Secret reason to root for him: Has promised that if he’s elected DNC chair, he won’t run for president in 2008.
Odds: Dean has surprised DNC voters by mounting the most methodical, persistent campaign. “Howard has been workin’ it,” says one Democrat who’s been on the receiving end of pro-Dean e-mails and phone calls. Dean is aiming much of his attention at the party activists, who’ll control the biggest bloc of votes. An equal number of DNC members seem to hate Dean, however. “No fuckin’ way,” says a leading swing-state Democrat. 10-1.

Jim Blanchard
Résumé: Long if unexciting. Four-term congressman from Michigan; two-term governor of Michigan in the eighties; failed U.S. Senate candidate; ambassador to Canada.
Why he’s chasing the DNC job: It’s been a long time since Blanchard, 62, was a factor in national Democratic circles; in his 2002 run to reclaim the Michigan governorship, he finished third in the Democratic primary.
Where he’d take the party: “We can’t be the pussyfooting opposition. We’ve got to be the hard-hitting loyal opposition.”
Odds: Has Blanchard mentioned he’s from Michigan? You realize Michigan is a swing state, right? A stronger argument for Blanchard is that he’s the anti-Dean. “If Howard starts to develop much support, you’ll see a lot of factions coalesce against him and around somebody else,” says a DNC member from New York. “We’re looking at Jim Blanchard.” 15-1.

Harold Ickes
Résumé:: A son of the party—his father was FDR’s Interior secretary. Spearheaded fierce defense of president and First Lady during Whitewater and other investigations, then mapped out Hillary’s run for U.S. senator. Ickes, 65, helped launch and run the Media Fund, a 527 that raised more than $45 million for Kerry-friendly ads, and ACT, which raised $100 million for get-out-the-vote drives.
Why he’s chasing the DNC job: His boosters say it’s because he’s an unparalleled political operative and strategist, and an unshakably loyal Democrat. His (many) enemies—and even some boosters—say Ickes’s bid is the first chess move of the Hillary ’08 presidential campaign.
Secret reason to root for him: Imaginatively, profusely profane.
Odds: Better if he’d settle for half the job. There’s considerable talk among party insiders about dividing the chair’s responsibilities among two people: a spokesman and a COO. “The ideal chair,” says a New York DNC member, “is African-American or Hispanic and is a woman, from the Deep South or the Midwest, who truly believes in Jesus and can articulate in the most congenial way the notion that Jesus wouldn’t have cut taxes for the rich or lied about Iraq. Harold doesn’t make sense to me because he’s perceived as Hillary’s guy and he’s tough; you want him on your side, but you don’t necessarily want him on Meet the Press.” If the job is split, Ickes becomes the favorite for Mr. Inside. Otherwise: 50-1.

Tim Roemer
Résumé: Six-term congressman from Indiana, member of the 9/11 Commission, 48 years old.
Why he’s chasing the DNC job: Actually, it’s unclear whether he’s chasing or being pushed. Roemer’s candidacy is being promoted by Nevada’s Harry Reid, the new minority leader in the Senate, and California’s Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader in the House.
Odds: “A lot of people are yammering that we need to have a more articulate strategy on the war in Iraq, and Roemer having served on the 9/11 Commission gives him a national-security credential,” says a Democratic operative. Some in the party’s left wing are unhappy over Roemer’s anti-abortion views, and other DNC members are irritated by Roemer’s congressional backers. 8-1.

Simon Rosenberg
Résumé:: Co-founded the New Democrat Network, a centrist fund-raising and advocacy group.
Why he’s chasing the DNC job: Gets no respect from Washington wise guys. The DNC run raises the 41-year-old’s profile and maybe gains him some Beltway credibility. Or not. “The candidacies of Simon and of Donnie Fowler are patently absurd,” says a Democratic consultant. “They haven’t run anything.” (Well, the 37-year-old Fowler was Wesley Clark’s campaign manager before quitting abruptly, and he’d be an entertaining chairman: Fowler has been posting his DNC campaign expenses, down to his cell-phone bills and cab rides, on a Website.)
Odds: 200-1.

Ron Kirk
Résumé: Former mayor of Dallas, failed Senate candidate. Black and 50 years old.
Why he’s chasing the DNC job: “There are too many Americans who see our party as nothing more than a coalition of disparate voices.”
Odds: He drew votes across the racial spectrum in Dallas, and compiled a moderate record that appealed to progressives. Kirk gave a rousing, red-meat speech in Orlando, and drew some of his biggest cheers by saying there should be even more DNC candidates. “You can’t look at this room, and look at this audience full of women, and wonder why there isn’t a woman up here on the podium,” he said. This is either an indication of Kirk’s inclusiveness and savvy, or of his ambivalence in pursuing the chairmanship. “My understanding is that he doesn’t want to do the DNC job full-time, which would be problematic,” says a Democratic consultant. 6-1.

All the candidates are stressing the need to fortify the Democrats’ grassroots network so it rivals the GOP’s Amway-style operation. But time has a way of confounding plans: McAuliffe got the job in 2001 largely because of his ability to reel in big donors; McCain-Feingold made the fat cats less important, and McAuliffe found himself becoming more of a technocrat. But his biggest impact may have been front-loading the Democratic presidential-primary schedule so a winner would emerge quickly. Already, state leaders are vowing to jigger the calendar once more, and some are looking for a DNC candidate who’ll pledge to go along. Might a DNC chairman with New York ties—like Dean, Ickes, or Rosenberg—push to hold the first ’08 primary here, so that the presidential candidates would spend eight months at Hamptons clambakes and Onondaga County pancake breakfasts while saturating city TV stations with ads?

Hmmm. One more reason to root for Ron Kirk.


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