Feb. 7, 2005 -- Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has assured party leaders that if he's elected to head the Democratic National Committee this Saturday, he will focus aggressively on raising money and winning elections, party officials and Dean advisers have told ABC News.
Dean has also said he'd allow members of Congress and Democratic governors to set the party's policy agenda, the sources said.
Dean has started planning a transition that would make his mark on party operations, but he is also trying to calm a chorus of Democrats who believe his polarizing image will hurt the party. Dean has assured Democratic strategists and supporters he will choose deputies they will find credible.
"No decisions have been made except that his team will be broad, inclusive and diverse," said Democratic consultant Steve McMahon, one of Dean's closest advisers.
If elected, Dean plans to embark on a national tour to rally supporters and meet with his detractors in an attempt to get them on board for his four-year chairmanship.
His first orders of business will be to unify the party and communicate to Democrats that he views his tenure as a partnership with them, Democrats said.
The Republican National Committee has an extensive file of Dean's colorful quotations and a Republican official said GOP officials will work to brand Democrats nationwide as temperamental and cultural allies of Dean's.
Even though he is the clear front-runner for the DNC job, Dean is telling his advisers to focus on winning by as broad a majority as possible. Sources say he is haunted by last year's presidential primaries, when he came in third in the Iowa caucuses despite being the front-runner for the previous six months. However, he is lucky to be faced with a better set of circumstances going into this race. As of today, all of his opponents had dropped out of the race.
"He's focused on Feb. 12," said his communications director, Laura Gross. "The guy is still working the phones."
For that reason, current Dean aides and leading Democrats refused to discuss plans for the transition, although several said that Dean had begun to seek their input.
Dean Is Preparing for the Job
Dean spoke last week with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the two discussed improving the internal communication between the DNC and Reid's new press shop, which currently coordinates message and media response for national Democrats.
Just before President Bush delivered his State of the Union address Feb. 2, Dean dined with current DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe at a Washington restaurant. For two hours, the two discussed the mechanics of the chairmanship and McAuliffe offered his suggestions on how to best achieve a seamless transition, according to Democrats briefed on the conversation.
Dean has promised to return power and control to state parties to make them competitive with their Republican counterparts, and to focus on coalition-building. He has said he would rebuild the national party's election operation structure so that it attracted voters every day of every year.
Promises like these have helped Dean woo supporters. He has merged his national celebrity and popularity among progressives with a reform agenda tailored to the concerns of the 447 members of the DNC.
Organizationally, Democrats say that Dean will almost immediately appoint an executive director to lead his transition team.
"From day number one, things come at you at a million miles a minute," said Josh Wachs, the DNC's chief operating officer.
The name bandied about by many former Dean aides as a top candidate for a powerful role in Dean's DNC is Tom Ochs, a veteran strategist who recently joined the consulting firm headed by McMahon. Ochs is respected by members of the party's establishment.
But Gross said, "There are no staffing discussions going on right now."
Other potential DNC principals include Tom McMahon, the current executive director of Dean's political action committee, Democracy for America, and a former aide to Al Gore, and Karen Hicks, Dean's New Hampshire state director during his primary run who later became the DNC's national field director. Joe Johnson, a former senior adviser to Jesse Jackson, has been one of Dean's closest confidants during the chair's race.
While the executive director would begin to hire a team of operatives to staff the party, others will work on ensuring Dean's image problem does not impede his plans for the party.
Jim Jordan, a leading Democratic consultant who advised Dean during the chairman's race, is among those who have agreed to help. While Jordan declined comment, Dean's former presidential campaign chair Steve Grossman said that he too would assist.
"I'm happy to participate in any way that I can in a transition period, bringing whatever experience I have to get this new administration off on the right foot, one that builds credibility from day one," Grossman said. "That's one of Howard biggest challenges."
Dean's Critics Are Vocal
The road ahead is embodied at one extreme in New Jersey businessman Michael Granoff, who has helped get a number of Democratic candidates elected to dozens of offices.
A self-described "Main Street Democrat" concerned as much about national security issues as about the economy, Ganoff plans to leave the party if members of the DNC elect Dean this weekend.
The long-time Democrat said that electing Dean as party chairman "is the most moronic move the party could make."
Granoff said he believes Dean does not take the war on terrorism seriously enough and that a codification of his views, or even the perception of his views as highly liberal, will relegate the party to minority status for years to come.
But Robert Zimmerman, a DNC member from New York and one of the party's top fund-raisers, said that most party insiders and many of his fellow fund-raisers are more concerned that the two remaining major candidates, Dean and organizer Donnie Fowler, emerged from bases of support among activists in states, not from Washington, D.C.
"You could truly say that the actions of the national committee in terms of focusing on Dean really reflected rebellion by the national committee members against the power structure of the party," which, he said, includes labor, members of Congress, consultants and the traditional fund-raising community.
According to advisers, Dean has never made peace with most of the party's major donors, who tend to be somewhat more politically calculating and cautious than rank-and-file activists.
"Governor Dean will need to reach across the spectrum to build those new bridges very quickly," said Roy Neel, Dean's former campaign chief executive officer and another probable participant in transition planning.
Dean Must Work to Put Critics at Bay
Aware of his reputation as a bomb thrower, Dean has already begun to reassure his critics on Capitol Hill and in governors' mansions that he will leave policy-making speeches to them.
In his meeting with Reid and others, Dean promised to better coordinate the party's message so that the chairman doesn't detract from what its elected officials are trying to say. He has told members of Congress that he will focus almost exclusively on helping recruit and elect Democratic candidates to office.
"You probably, if Dean is elected, will have a chairman who has the highest visibility of any Democratic chairman in recent memory," said Neel. "You have three different egos, three political agendas and one huge opportunity."
"If they're going to step into each other's sandboxes, then they have ample notice and it's coordinated," he said.
Zimmerman, who has spoken with Dean in recent days, added "I don't think there will be tolerance on any level to have a chairman in conflict with the congressional level or the Democratic Governors Association. And I think Dean gets that."
Though past chairs like McAuliffe and Ron Brown faced critics representing certain wings of the party, none has faced a greater degree of vocal opposition than Dean.
Assuaging those concerns is the principle reason for Dean's decision to travel widely as soon as he puts an organization in place, according to his advisers.
"He's going to have to spend a disproportionate amount of time in the first three to six months sitting down with them ... up close and personal, and begin to develop relationships that go beyond the sound bites and beyond the rhetoric," said Grossman. "I think Howard Dean is at his best when he is out there recruiting, organizing and giving people some sense of the possibilities of rebuilding and re-creating a base."
Another step, according to Democrats familiar with Dean's thinking, is to appoint a national finance chair who can immediately begin to reach out to fund-raisers who are nervous about Dean's polarizing effect on swing voters.
"A lot of people were not for him, not because his name was Howard Dean but because he was conceived as a Northeast liberal," said supermarket magnate and Democratic fund-raiser John Catsimatidis, who supported John Kerry in the primaries. "He's not a bad guy. The press has made him into an extreme liberal and I'm not sure his past justifies that. It's up to him to create his own image."
But Catsimatidis made it clear that he and other top fund-raisers will not automatically warm to Dean.
"We're not getting used to anybody," he said. "If he's the one in charge, he has to work hard to put the party together."