Echoes of Dean in '08

As members of the Democratic National Committee gather to hear pitches from the party's presidential contenders, one speech from the same party gathering four years ago is casting a longer shadow than any other.

"People were going crazy," committee Chairman Howard Dean said to ABC News of the February 2003 speech in which he ignited his presidential campaign by forcefully identifying himself as representing the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party."

"By about the fifth sentence," Dean said, "when I gave that line about the Democratic Party, I realized that it was pretty powerful."

Dean, who will host this year's Democratic presidential candidates' forum, still has his detractors in the party.

They take issue with his policy of spreading party resources across 50 states rather than concentrating them in places that are perceived to represent the party's best electoral chances.

On issues ranging from Iraq to health care to the use of the Internet, however, the party's new crop of presidential candidates have taken significant steps in his direction.

In the first month of the 2008 campaign cycle, the campaigns of Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C. have each, in their own way, paid homage to the anti-Iraq War, pro-universal health care, Internet-friendly campaign Dean ran four years ago.

"What I want to know," Dean asked four years ago, "is why in the world the Democratic Party's leadership is supporting the president's unilateral attack on Iraq."

Same War, Different Election

Back then, Dean's question about Iraq sharply differentiated him from his top rivals.

This year, by contrast, anti-Iraq War passion is not the exclusive province of any one candidate.

In her maiden trip to Iowa as a presidential candidate, Clinton demanded that President Bush "extricate our country" from Iraq before he leaves office. She is also pushing legislation that would cap the number of U.S. troops in Iraq at the same level that was present in the country on Jan. 1, 2007.

Earlier this week, Obama moved to Clinton's left by reversing his earlier opposition to setting a deadline for U.S. troop withdrawal. The freshman lawmaker is now the author of proposed legislation that would, if enacted, withdraw all U.S. combat brigades from Iraq by March 31, 2008.

Obama also never tires of reminding potential voters that he was against the war "in conception and not just in execution," having spoken out against the war while still serving in the Illinois state legislature.

Edwards, like Clinton, carries the burden of having voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq. But he has worked to differentiate himself from Clinton by forthrightly calling that earlier vote a mistake, and he has differentiated himself from all the top contenders by urging Congress to use its power of the purse under the Constitution to stop President Bush from adding 21,500 U.S. troops in Iraq.

The Tar Heel's rivals have shied away from such a move out of fear that President Bush would portray them as voting against the troops.

Dean's Domestic Influence

Echoes of Dean's 2003 speech can also be seen in the area of health care.

"What I want to know," Dean said four years ago, "is why we're fighting in Congress about the Patient's Bill of Rights when the Democratic Party ought to be standing up for health care for every single American man, woman, and child in this country."

When he was still in the Senate, Edwards was a leading champion of legislation that would have given patients the right to sue Health Maintenance Organizations. As his second presidential campaign gets under way, though, Edwards has stopped highlighting HMO reform and talks instead of universal health care.

Clinton is taking a similar tack.

Having failed in her effort to establish universal health care in the early 1990s, Clinton has pushed modest health-care reforms that focus on children and veterans. But in her first week as a candidate, Clinton said that she would soon propose a plan "about how we get to universal coverage."

Not to be outdone, Obama recently told the Families U.S.A. conference that universal health care "must not be a question of whether, it must be a question of how."

D Is for Digital

Another feature of Dean's brand of politics that has been on display in the first month of the campaign is the heavy reliance on the Internet as a tool for raising money, organizing supporters, and spreading the candidate's message.

The night before Edwards formally declared his presidential candidacy in New Orleans, his advisers posted a video on YouTube and Rocketboom.com in which he outlined the themes of his campaign.

Obama and Clinton went so far as to make their actual announcements on the Internet.

Looking back over the path that his party his traveled over the last four years, Dean sees substantial progress.

But despite gains made in 2005, when Democrats held onto the governorship of Virginia, and 2006, when Democrats regained control of the House and Senate, the former Vermont governor does not want to see his party become complacent.

"The American people have granted us power for two years," Dean told ABC News. "This is an audition period."