Democrats elected Howard Dean chairman of their national party on Saturday, casting their lot with a skilled fund-raiser and organizer whose sometimes caustic, blunt comments can lead to controversy.
The 447-member Democratic National Committee chose Dean on a voice vote to replace outgoing party chief Terry McAuliffe. The former Vermont governor and presidential candidate had promised to rebuild the state parties, take the offensive against Republicans, and better explain party positions on issues.
"Today will be the beginning of the reemergence of the Democratic Party," Dean told DNC members immediately after his election. "The first thing we have to do is stand up for what we believe in."
Democrats are eager to renew their campaign to regain political power, though some admit to a bit of anxiety. President Bush just won his second term. Republicans are firmly in control of the House and the Senate. And the GOP is gaining strength in conservative states in the South and West.
For Joyce Cusack, a Florida delegate, it's time for Democrats to embrace their party's values.
"We are trying so hard to be like Republicans and we're not. I think Howard Dean says clearly that we are different," Cusack said. "We are the party of ordinary citizens and not the elite, we are everyday working folk."
'Force of personality'
Democratic leaders, who were initially wary of a Dean chairmanship, started embracing his leadership after it became apparent he was strong enough to claim the job. Several high-profile Democrats considering a bid for chairman backed out of the race.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, not always a Dean supporter, said Friday, "He has used the power of technology, the force of his personality and the depth of his ideals to bring new people into the party."
Republicans have indicated in recent weeks that they welcome a chance to talk about Dean's attacks and policy positions. But on Saturday, the Republicans also took a cordial tone.
Dean and Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman talked briefly just after noon and Mehlman released a congratulatory statement.
"Howard Dean's energy and passion will add to the political discourse in this country and he will be a strong leader for his party," Mehlman said.
Dean said his first task will be to start working with Democrats in conservative states in the South and West.
"I'll pretty much be living in red states in the South and West for quite a while," Dean said. "The way to get people not to be skeptical about you is to show up and say what you think."
Reminded that former Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican, had said Dean would be the perfect leader for Democrats "if they have a death wish," Dean smiled broadly and said, "I'm looking forward to the opportunity to prove Newt wrong."
Asked about the war in Iraq, Dean resisted restating the anti-war beliefs that were central to his presidential campaign.
"My positions on Iraq are well-known," he said. "But I'm not going to get into any policy discussion on it."
Dean said "the day-to-day battle over what goes on in Iraq" is best handled by Democratic leaders in Congress.