Former Vermont governor, practicing physician and presidential contender Howard Dean appears on track to become the next chairman of the Democratic Party. Dr. Dean's election is expected on Saturday, when the 447 members of the Democratic National Committee hold a vote in Washington.
Howard Dean may have failed as a presidential candidate in 2004, but he now stands on the verge of leading the Democratic Party during President Bush's second term.
Dr. Dean was the early favorite to win the Democratic Party's presidential nomination last year. But a surge by Senator John Kerry in the Iowa Caucuses derailed the Dean campaign and put Senator Kerry on a path to become the party nominee for president.
In the wake of Senator Kerry's defeat at the hands of President Bush last November, Dr. Dean decided to seek the Democratic chairmanship with a promise to broaden the party's appeal.
"First, I think we have to have a 50-state strategy and secondly, I really believe we have to stand up for being Democrats. We have a message to sell. I frankly think it is a better message than the Republicans. We just have to figure out how to get it out there," he said.
But some Democrats worry that Howard Dean may not be the right man for the job. They argue that his liberal image and northeastern roots will not help expand the party's reach in the south and west, two areas of the country where Republicans have made strong gains in recent years.
Former Indiana Congressman Tim Roemer was one of six challengers for the job of party chairman who recently conceded the race to Dr. Dean.
"You look at the past election. The Democratic Party lost 97 of the 100 fastest growing counties in the United States,” he noted. “We have four United States Senators left in the deep South. We lost ground with Hispanic voters."
Other Democrats see Dr. Dean's election as party chairman as inevitable and are more optimistic.
Among them is Senator John Kerry, who recently spoke on the Don Imus program on MSNBC television.
"You know, Howard is going to be very good for the party,” he said. “A lot of people are worried about it, but I am not. I think he has been out there in the country, he has listened to people. He has got the pulse."
Senator Kerry's narrow defeat has touched off an internal debate within the party about whether Democrats should adhere to their traditional liberal beliefs or adopt a more moderate stance on some issues.
Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy is among those arguing that Democrats need to guard against becoming what he calls Republican clones.
"If we do, we will lose again and deserve to lose,” he said. “As I have said on other occasions, the last thing our country needs is two Republican Parties."
Experts say the internal debate and self-reflection among Democrats is likely to go on for sometime.
"For the next coming months, we are going to see an enormous amount of navel-gazing from the Democrats,” said Patrick Basham, who monitors U.S. politics at the Cato Institute in Washington. “Any party that loses two elections in a row and does not do well in the congressional races as well is focused primarily on what did we do wrong and how can we change things?"
In the short term, analysts say Democrats must also decide when to oppose the president and when to work with him.
"They have to develop a message and ideas,” said John White, a professor of politics at Catholic University in Washington. “They really need to go back to the drawing board. Second, they are an opposition party and therefore they are going to have to decide on what issues they are going to fight the president and the Republicans and on what issues might they find agreement."
In the short term, Democrats hope to make gains in Congress in the 2006 congressional midterm elections. But several prominent Democrats are also looking at a possible presidential run in 2008.
Howard Dean says his election as party chairman will take him out of the running for the party's presidential nomination three years from now.