WASHINGTON - Still licking their wounds after the defeat of their 2004 presidential nominee, the Democrats are turning to the task of finding a new leader, or at least a new spokesman, to put their party back on track.
In a preliminary audition in Orlando, Fla., last weekend, eight prospective candidates for Democratic national chairman offered their prescriptions at a meeting of the Association of State Democratic Chairs.
Previously, Democratic governors had let it be known they intend to have a say in the direction of the party. They contended, as effective practitioners at the state level, that they are best qualified to sell policies faithful to Democratic traditions and attractive to voters.
The choice of a new party chairman, replacing master fund-raiser Terry McAuliffe, is to be made at the February meeting of the Democratic National Committee, at which the state chairs and governors have a voice, but not a dominant one.
The most prominent contender is former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who in 2003 and early 2004 demonstrated his public appeal and fund-raising prowess via the Internet but crash-landed as a presidential candidate in the Iowa caucuses.
Dr. Dean's unfettered attacks on President Bush and the war in Iraq drew heavy support within the party. But his bombastic and sometimes incautious statements caused Democratic primary voters to turn to the less-contentious Sen. John Kerry. Determined to oust Mr. Bush, the Democrats seemed more focused on that objective than any positive push for their own nominee.
Dr. Dean also riled members of the DNC at a pre-primaries meeting when he said he represented "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," a line borrowed from the late Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, an unabashed old liberal. The remark carried the implication that the DNC had lost its bearings from its halcyon New Deal days. Many centrist Democrats indeed believe it is imperative to move away from those liberal times to achieve success now.
After his collapse as a candidate, Dr. Dean used his still loyal troops in a grass-roots effort to elect like-minded candidates in the fall, and he told the Orlando meeting that the party needed to rebuild "from the ground up" and do a better job of selling its message.
If, however, Dr. Dean sees the party chairmanship as a path to the next Democratic presidential nomination, history is not in his corner. At most, party chairmen are kingmakers. What they can be, though, is either an effective spokesman or a nuts-and-bolts organizer.
Several of the other prospective candidates for the chairmanship have better credentials in the latter department. They include Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, defeated for re-election in the recent Texas redistricting fiasco but long an effective voice in the House; Harold Ickes, a former Bill Clinton White House aide and long-time organizer who led an independent media effort in behalf of Mr. Kerry; and Donnie Fowler, son of a former DNC chairman, who ran and won Mr. Kerry's campaign in Michigan.
Tradition bestows on Mr. Kerry, as the last party nominee, the empty moniker of titular leader, but the party clearly is looking for a new direction. In that, it could well borrow an example from the Republicans, who after their landslide loss in 1964 behind Barry Goldwater turned to one of the GOP's best nuts-and-bolts operatives, Ohio state chairman Ray C. Bliss. Four years later, the Republicans put Richard M. Nixon in the White House.
But Republicans had strong spokesmen then, including Mr. Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller. No current Democratic office-holder similarly stands out, with the possible exception of Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a former U.N. ambassador who, as a Hispanic-American, could be effective particularly in better mobilizing that critical constituency.
Under Clinton friend Mr. McAuliffe, the Democratic Party neutralized the longtime GOP financial advantage and modernized its technology. But he wasn't the best spokesman because of his image as a money man.
Dr. Dean at the least could be counted on to fire up the party troops - but maybe, in the end, in behalf of some other Democrat. And that, after all, is what a Democratic national chairman is supposed to do.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.