SACRAMENTO, CALIF. — SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Squeals of delight greet Democratic candidate Howard Dean as he enters the crowded hotel ballroom in a blaze of TV lights.
A flashback from last year's presidential campaign? Nope. It's a scene out of Dean's newest coast-to-coast quest - his run for the leadership of the Democratic National Committee.
"Many of you are probably wondering why I want to be the DNC chair," he tells a boisterous rally here.
Others are wondering something else: whether the party that rejected Dean's outsider candidacy is about to put him in charge at national headquarters in Washington.
The answer, somewhat surprisingly, might well be "yes." The man who lost the battle to lead the national ticket in 2004 has emerged as the front-runner to direct the Democratic organization for the next four years.
He is offering his frustrated and demoralized party an injection of grass-roots energy and take-no-prisoners style. A growing number of Democrats seem to be responding.
"He's a terrific communicator, and he knows how to be in the opposition," says Elaine Kamarck, a centrist "new Democratic" theorist and DNC member who backs Dean.
With a Republican in the White House and Democrats out of power in Congress, a Chairman Dean would be a highly visible figure on the national scene. That's exactly what is worrying some Democrats. They think his liberal image and reputation for red-faced rants would drive away the moderate-to-conservative voters the party desperately needs to attract as it tries to rebuild.
Dean would hurt the party in rural areas and much of the Deep South, said political scientist Merle Black of Emory University in Atlanta.
Local Democratic politicians in those places "would be very reluctant to appear with Dean because it immediately puts them on the defensive with their potential supporters," he said. "It's his image but also the positions he's taken. He's going to be perceived as a very liberal Democrat."
Since his presidential candidacy collapsed last winter and he receded from national attention, his image has improved. But he still evokes negative feelings from one in four voting-age Americans, according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
If he becomes the face of the Democratic Party, "expect the Republicans to unearth all the controversial statements he has made and launch a demonization campaign," says Marshall Wittman, a former aide to Republican Sen. John McCain. "They probably already have the ads in the can."
About the time Dean began maneuvering for the party job, after the November election, Democratic leaders in Congress tried to recruit a candidate of their own. They came up empty. The work of a chairman, which revolves heavily around money-raising chores, apparently had little appeal for several present or former governors and former Clinton administration officials.
The inability of senior Democrats to find a consensus candidate is just another indication of a weak and directionless party, some critics say.
"There should have been a smoke-filled room" where party leaders anointed a chairman, says strategist James Carville.
Instead, candidates for the job have spent hours promoting themselves in a series of public regional forums. The final one is today in New York City.
In politics, it's tough to beat a somebody with nobodies. Dean is facing six lesser-known contenders, including two former congressmen, a former mayor of Denver and several backroom party operatives.
Almost exactly a year ago, Dean was also the front-runner in another Democratic contest - for the presidential nomination. His candidacy quickly fell apart after he got 18 percent in the Iowa caucuses, and he wants to make it clear that he's wiser today.
"If I become chair ... " he tells several hundred supporters in Sacramento.
"When!" shouts a voice in the crowd.
"We've been down that road before," Dean replies, with a laugh.
The party election is an elimination contest, similar to a game of musical chairs. An anybody-but-Dean candidate - former Rep. Martin Frost of Texas is the leading alternative - could wind up winning.
The decision is up to the 447 members of the national committee, drawn from all 50 states and interest groups such as organized labor, who will vote Feb. 12.
Dean's speech to the same group, two years ago, was instrumental in his rise from obscurity. When he declared himself the candidate of "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," the DNC members - who lean heavily to the left side of the center-left party - jumped to their feet, cheering.
Over the next year, Dean gathered more DNC support than any other candidate, including the eventual nominee, Sen. John Kerry. Some national committee members, such as Maryland's state party chairman, Terry Lierman, are Dean campaign veterans.
Support for Dean
The former Vermont governor has been parlaying his celebrity into support in the chairman's contest. He shrewdly rolled out endorsements from some state-party chairmen from the South, where hostility to his candidacy is strongest, and from prominent labor representatives and African-Americans, including Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, who recently chaired the Congressional Black Caucus. Longtime activist Harold Ickes - who is close to former President Bill Clinton and his wife, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton - added his endorsement yesterday.
He has promised, if elected, that he won't run for president in 2008. But he's maintaining his national political organization, Democracy for America, which has tens of thousands of active members around the country, such as those gathered to hear him in the California capital.
His pitch to supporters - at a rally that showcased his organizing skills to about 65 DNC members from the West - includes a plan to win elections in all 50 states. That means taking the party's message into the reddest of the so-called red states, where the Republicans have virtually driven Democrats out of business.
"We are no longer going to be afraid to go to Alabama," he says. "And Mississippi ... and Montana ... "
The crowd, aware that he's rolling into his "scream" schtick, erupts with whoops and applause.
Dean flashes a huge grin. "And Michigan!" he growls, voice rising. "And South Carolina! ...
When the cheering finally subsides, he adds, in a conversational voice: "Yaa-hoo."