Jan. 4, 2005 -- Top Democrats are working to convince current Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe to remain in his post for at least another 12 months as the party prepares for the 2006 midterm elections.
McAuliffe is due to give up the job five weeks from now, when his four-year term expires, at the DNC's winter meeting in Washington. Those Democrats trying to convince him to stay on the job fear the large crop of candidates for chairman has failed to inspire the 447 voting members of the national committee.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is aware of the efforts to convince McAuliffe to stay, Democratic sources said, and has not put the kibosh on the idea. Some Democrats said Reid had tacitly encouraged the scenario if no front-runner emerged soon.
Sen. Charles Schumer, the new head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has been among the most vocal of those urging McAuliffe to remain, party sources said.
"There are many good candidates for DNC chair," Schumer, D-N.Y., told ABC News. "Terry McAuliffe has been a great chair and could continue to be one."
Seeking Steady Leadership
Those who want McAuliffe to stay on fear that choosing a new leader without a solid mandate would destabilize the party at the very moment when it most needs a steady hand. McAuliffe, they say, could build on his successes and incorporate many of the ideas being proposed by those who want to replace him.
Others worry that no current aspirant for the job has galvanized enough support to prevent former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean from being voted into the chairman's spot. This is a less-than-ideal scenario for those in the party who consider the former presidential candidate to be too polarizing. Dean gained a boost this week as Rep. John Murtha, a conservative House Democrat who supported the Iraq war resolution, wrote to Pennsylvania delegates urging that they select Dean for chair.
A Democrat who has discussed the option with McAuliffe said, "He's thinking about it, but I see no indication that anyone has moved him."
This Democrat and others said they would not speak on the record because the overtures to McAuliffe were made in confidence and they did not want to offend the candidates seeking to replace him.
McAuliffe, a master fund-raiser who began to rebuild the party's dilapidated technological infrastructure, has said he would not run for another two- to four-year term. For four years, he used his political savvy and personal charm to snuff out many of the party's intramural flashpoints and was well-liked. He is credited with increasing the party's donor base by 70 percent.
As chairman, he directly appoints 75 members to at-large positions on the committee, ensuring him a loyal voting cadre.
Would It Be the Right Move?
When Democratic senators meet Wednesday at their party's policy luncheon, the subject of the chair's race and the potential for a contingency plan to retain McAuliffe is likely to be a topic of discussion. McAuliffe's friend New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, is the featured speaker.
Under some scenarios, McAuliffe would stay in the post for another year, to prepare for the 2005 and 2006 elections and allow a stronger candidate to emerge.
"It would be great for the party, but I'm not sure it would be great for McAuliffe," said a party consultant who works closely with him. "He has the opportunity now to exit as probably the most popular and highly regarded chair in modern history."
DNC spokesman Jano Cabrera said the chairman wants to spend more time with his wife and family.
"He's flattered, but his only response for now consists of two words: Dorothy McAuliffe," said Cabrera.
Democratic sources said former Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., were among those who had asked McAuliffe to stay. A spokesperson for Pelosi said she had not endorsed anyone, though she has spoken favorably about former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer.
Many Democratic leaders -- including former President Bill Clinton, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the party's unsuccessful 2004 presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and former Vice President Al Gore -- have watched the race from afar, but are not known to have settled on a favored candidate.
'Netroots' Lobby for Reform
While almost every candidate for the position has paid tribute to McAuliffe's legacy, many have said they want to reform the party around the strengths of a new leader -- one who could build the party's get-out-the-vote capacity and to rebuild tattered state parties in places like Florida and Ohio. And critics note that McAuliffe ultimately did not lead Democrats to success in competitive elections, the bottom-line measure for any successful chair.
Activist Democrats on the Web, calling themselves the party's "netroots," are the least kindly disposed to McAuliffe, blaming his tenure for tilting the party's ideological heart away from its core and too close to its high-money donors.
Many of these activists were original supporters of Dean's antiwar populism and believe Dean possessed what McAuliffe, despite his fund-raising prowess, couldn't find: a clear message that appealed to activists.
They blame McAuliffe, who pushed for a compressed nomination calendar, for creating the conditions that led to Dean's loss and the nomination of Kerry, a man many of these activists believed was too close to the Washington establishment to reform it.
Time to Move On?
Bloggers like the Daily Kos have made ridding the party of McAuliffe a central political crusade.
Though Dean has been critical of the party in the past, his relationship with McAuliffe is not personally sour. "Gov. Dean has said that Terry McAuliffe has left this party in great financial shape," said Dean spokeswoman Laura Gross. "For once after the election, the party is not in debt."
Still, in the absence of a clear front-runner, McAuliffe's name comes up in often wistful discussions of the party's future. The large crop of candidates includes Dean, Texas Rep. Martin Frost, organizer Donnie Fowler and New Democrat Network President Simon Rosenberg.
"It's very wide open among the existing contenders," said Harold Ickes, former Clinton White House deputy chief of staff. Ickes had been considered a favorite for the post but opted out Monday.
Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk told ABC News late today that he was not running and sent a letter to DNC members endorsing Frost.
Other top Democrats, including allies of McAuliffe, say they believe a consensus candidate will emerge in the next 40 days.
"It's time for the party to move forward with someone else," said Donna Brazile, a top operative and organizer. "Terry has made his mark and he'll be honored."
ABC News Political Director Mark Halperin contributed to this report.