Leaders praise Dean as new DNC chairman

Former Vt. governor, presidential candidate to be installed today

February 12, 2005|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Top Democrats fell in line behind incoming party Chairman Howard Dean yesterday, muting any doubts they might harbor about his re-emergence on the national scene and what that could mean for their struggling party.

The Democratic leaders of Congress, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, joined a pair of prospective '08 presidential contenders in praising Dean to members of the Democratic National Committee at the start of their annual gathering here.

Dean, who lost the Democratic nomination last year, will be formally installed as DNC head today. The former Vermont governor, who has kept a low profile to avoid giving his critics fresh ammunition, succeeded in driving out of the contest six rivals for the party job.

Reid drew laughter from members of the DNC when he thanked those who ran for chairman "and all the Democrats I tried to get to run." Critics have described the Democratic establishment's failure to find a consensus candidate for chairman another sign of a weak and directionless party.

Reid and Pelosi prodded Tim Roemer to run, though they never endorsed him. His candidacy went nowhere after members of the overwhelmingly liberal DNC learned that the former Indiana representative opposes abortion rights.

John Edwards, the 2004 vice presidential nominee, predicted that Dean would "do a terrific job" as chairman and tried to answer critics who say the party has lost its way.

"Don't tell me the Democrats don't stand for anything," Edwards said. "We believe in hope over despair. We believe in optimism over cynicism. We believe in possibilities over problems."

Repeating populist themes from his unsuccessful run for the presidential nomination, Edwards said President Bush's vision of an "ownership society" is "nothing but an exclusive club with the doors closed to people who work hard for a living."

The former senator said his wife, Elizabeth, who is being treated for breast cancer, is "doing very well." This year, the family will move back to North Carolina, where Edwards has helped establish a center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, like Edwards a potential '08 contender, called Dean's rise to party chairman a victory for grass-roots politics.

"It was not a party coronation," Richardson said.

He said the Democrats' losing streak in presidential elections means they no longer can "rely on what we've done before." Richardson, the party's most prominent Hispanic officeholder, said Democrats "better mean it" when they say they're reaching out to Hispanics and must avoid "lecturing" Hispanics, who gave Bush a larger share of their vote in 2004.

Democrats, Richardson said, "have to start showing up" in parts of the South and West, where the national party has almost ceased to exist.

The audience of several hundred activists from around the country applauded when Richardson, who spent almost 25 years in Washington, said that the party should be taking its cues from outside the nation's capital. That means promoting innovative ideas that Democrats are adopting on the state and local level, he said.

But one of the few new ideas offered by Richardson - a constitutional amendment permitting Canadian-born Democratic Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm of Michigan to seek the presidency - drew an immediate, negative reaction, including cries of "No Arnold!"

"Nein. Nein," declared a voice from the crowd because allowing naturalized Americans to be president would make Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California eligible to run.

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