By Political correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/15/2004 8:53:31 AM ET 2004-12-15T13:53:31

For the reporters in attendance, there was no mistake about it: The scene last weekend here in Walt Disney World, where eight candidates made their pitches to possibly become the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee, seemed like a race for class president. One campaign passed out bumper stickers and buttons. Another distributed gift bags. Others courted party members in their hotel suites. And some even tried to create buzz by hosting breakfasts (one featured biscuits and gravy; another,turkey sausage and scrambled eggs).

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Despite their different tactics, the eight candidates -- former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard, former presidential candidate Howard Dean, Democratic operative Donnie Fowler, outgoing Texas congressman Martin Frost, Democratic political insider Harold Ickes, ex-Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, New Democrat Network president Simon Rosenberg, and former Denver mayor Wellington Webb -- all seemed to touch on the same themes when they spoke to state party leaders at a forum on Saturday. They said that the Democratic Party must compete in all 50 states, must work better with individual states parties, and must do a better job of communicating the party’s values to voters.

There’s even the possibility that the next chair could come from outside this group of speakers. California Democratic Party chair Art Torres said in an interview that he received a phone call from former Indiana congressman Tim Roemer, who inquired about the position. And NBC News has learned that nominating petitions have been submitted on behalf of Molly Beth Malcolm, the former chair of the Texas Democratic Party. The party’s nearly 450 members will eventually settle on a successor to outgoing chair Terry McAuliffe when they gather in Washington, D.C., on February 12.

But as Democrats search for a new party leader after their election defeats this past November, it was also clear that each of the potential candidates who spoke in Orlando would take the party in slightly different directions. Howard Dean, the best-known contender, was vintage Dean, arguing that the party needs his outsider -- and insurgent -- voice. “We can’t have a message that comes from Washington consultants,” he told the state leaders on Saturday.

The next day, on NBC’s Meet the Press, he added: “The reason I’m interested in running for the DNC chairmanship is because I think we need some fundamental things done differently… Grassroots, empowering people elsewhere in the country, instead of trying to run things from the top down, I think, is the way to do it. It was successful for us. I think it can be successful for the Democratic National Committee.”

There are concerns in the party, however, that Dean’s memorable “scream” in Iowa and also his opposition to the Iraq war would make him unpopular in the some of the states that Bush carried this year -- but that Democrats want to capture in 2008. Yet, on Meet the Press, Dean did his best to temper any idea that he’s a raging liberal, by praising McAuliffe’s leadership and also by saying that liberal MoveOn.org was “a little over the top” for declaring that it bought and owned the Democratic Party.

If Dean is the insurgent outsider, Martin Frost’s message to the state leaders was that he would be a steady, experienced, and successful spokesman for the party. He emphasized his 26-years in Congress, his two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (when the Democrats picked up a total of 14 House seats), his “red” home state of Texas, and his ability to raise money. Yet like Dean, Frost argued that he would be a fighter by invoking the Republican-drawn Texas redistricting plan, which forced him to run in a GOP-dominated district -- a race he lost this past November. “The next chair of this party needs to be a fighter,” he said. “I chose to stand and fight in that district.”

The candidate who perhaps generated the most buzz after the forum was Ron Kirk, who stressed that the party needs a better message, one that Democrats from all states can use. Republicans, he said, read off the same script: We need to cut the size of the government, we need to cut taxes, we are stronger on national security, and (if those things don’t work) our opponent is a liberal. Kirk concluded that Democrats need a similar script that focuses on the economy, security, and fairness.

But in an interview after the forum, Kirk suggested that he would be happiest in an arrangement that would allow him to be the spokesman for the party, but leave the DNC’s day-to-day operations to someone else. Although many Democratic governors recommend a dual chairmanship -- in which one person would serve as the spokesman, and another as the CEO -- the California Democratic Party’s Torres said the state chairs preferred one chairman who would do it all.

Donnie Fowler of South Carolina, the youngest candidate (at 37) and also the son of former DNC chair Don Fowler, exuded energy, faith in technology, and a belief that the Democratic Party cannot cede the South to the Republicans. And with many Democrats searching for a way to win the debate over values, Fowler was also the one candidate to most explicitly invoke religion at the candidate forum. “I am a Democrat because I am a Christian,” he said.

Harold Ickes highlighted his experience as a party and campaign technician. He ticked off his work as Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign chair in New York, as the DNC’s deputy chair, as Clinton’s deputy White House chief of staff, as Hillary Clinton’s 2000 campaign manager for her Senate race, and as the manager of key Democratic 527 groups. Ickes also reminded the audience that he had worked with Don Fowler. (“That Fowler,” he said, pointing to Fowler’s father in the audience. “Not that Fowler,” he said, referring to the son.)

While Ickes mentioned his past work, Simon Rosenberg of the centrist New Democrat Network talked about the future. His vision for the party, he said in an interview the day before the forum, is to combine Bill Clinton’s centrist governing agenda with Howard Dean’s grassroots activism and focus on technology. “What we need is a modern strategy. That is what we need out of the chair.”

Meanwhile, Wellington Webb spoke about the party’s need to expand its base and to also pay attention to the individual needs of the state parties. And Jim Blanchard cited his government experience and fighting spirit. “We can’t be the pussycat opposition,” the former governor said. “When I’m national chairman, Donald Rumsfeld will not remain Secretary of Defense”

After the forum, however, Raymond Buckley, vice chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said he hoped the party has a role for all of the candidates who spoke in Orlando. “We need to utilize all their talents,” he said.

After all, the stakes couldn’t be any higher for the Democrats. As Rosenberg said, “Everybody wants to win again.”

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.

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