WASHINGTON - A restrained Howard Dean took over as Democratic national chairman yesterday with a pledge to change his party and make it competitive again on the national level.
The one-time presidential contender focused his remarks to party leaders on economic issues, attacking the "fiscal recklessness" of President Bush's budget and barely mentioning foreign policy and the Iraq war.
Later, Dean told reporters he expects to spend much of his time on the road in the so-called red states, especially the South and parts of the West, where the national Democratic Party is at its lowest ebb in more than 40 years.
"That's where we need a lot of work," he said. The way to counter skepticism about the party is to "show up and talk and say what you believe."
Without a Democrat in the White House, and with Republicans in control on Capitol Hill, Dean is expected to be one of his party's most visible spokesmen.
In his first day on the job, though, he appeared determined to avoid provoking critics. Dean stuck closely to the script of his carefully prepared remarks and sidestepped questions from reporters about his liberal image.
Toning down his often exuberant style, Dean declared that yesterday marked "the beginning of the re-emergence of the Democratic Party."
Building on techniques developed in his presidential campaign, he said he intends to use technology to help his party become better organized - and more competitive - in all 50 states.
Dean's victory over six lesser-known rivals in the contest for party chairman earned him a measure of vindication, less than a year after the spectacular collapse of his 2004 candidacy. However, even some of his closest advisers concede that Dean has a penchant for getting himself in trouble with ill-considered remarks.
Republicans have greeted his comeback with barely disguised joy. A senior Bush political adviser recently described Dean's elevation to the party chairmanship as a sign that the free-falling Democrats had not yet hit bottom.
Yesterday, Dean's Republican counterpart, Ken Mehlman, personally congratulated Dean and said he looked forward to "engaging in a constructive dialogue" with him.
"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," the Republican National Committee chairman said in a statement.
But the Republican Jewish Coalition greeted Dean's election by launching an attack. The Washington-based group announced that it would run full-page ads in Jewish publications around the country next week assailing Dean's views on Israel.
The ads target a September 2003 campaign stumble, when Dean remarked that it was "not our place to take sides" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He later said that his comment had been misinterpreted but that he should have used different language.
Dean inherits a party organization that is in its best financial condition in recent memory. Departing chairman Terry McAuliffe boasted in a farewell speech that the Democratic National Committee had out-raised the RNC in the last election for the first time in history.
Little talk of Iraq
On the final day of the annual meeting here, the 447-member DNC elected Dean in a voice vote, with no dissenting voices, despite the fears of some that his anti-war image will make it tougher for Democratic candidates to gain the support of moderate and conservative swing voters.
Moments later, Dean appeared before the crowd of more than 1,000 party activists, shrugging his shoulders and grinning somewhat sheepishly at the seeming improbability of it all.
"If you had told me a year ago that I'd be standing here today," he said, "I would not have believed you, and neither would a lot of other people."
Dean made a point of introducing his wife, Judith, who was present in the audience, in contrast to her absence from most of his presidential campaign. Dean said she intends to continue her medical practice in Vermont, while he divides his time between his home there and Washington.
Many in the partisan crowd waved tiny American flags, distributed at the direction of Dean's image-conscious advisers. His speech included criticism of the Bush administration on homeland security, reform of the intelligence community and nuclear proliferation - and virtually nothing about the war.
"There is no reason for Democrats to be defensive on national defense," said Dean, who mentioned Iraq only in the context of Bush's refusal to include the cost of the war in his budget.
At a news conference afterward, Dean explained his decision not to discuss Iraq by saying that he won't be making "pronouncements" about policy battles in Washington. Most such statements would be issued by the party's leaders in Congress, he added.
'Prove Newt wrong'
Dean met privately last week with the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, who endorsed his candidacy only after failing to find an alternate candidate of their own.
The new party chairman ducked when asked about a comment by former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who recently told Fox News Channel that if the Democrats "have a true death wish," Dean would be "the perfect guy to go with."
Dean responded mildly that he was glad that he has a chance to "prove Newt wrong."
When another reporter asked why he seemed so subdued, Dean insisted it wasn't intentional.
"I am who I am," he said.
It was left to other Democrats to articulate who Dean is, or at least what he has been in his rise to national prominence over the past two years.
Dean is "a fighter" and not "Republican lite," said former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, one of those who lost out in the chairmanship contest, as he formally nominated Dean for the party job.
On the Web site of Dean's political organization, Democracy for America, people posted comments from around the country cheering his victory.
"WE ARE TAKING OUR COUNTRY BACK!!" wrote a Deaniac identified only as "Karen in Michigan," a posting that echoed a line from Dean's '04 stump speech that he repeated in his remarks yesterday.
Dean, who has promised he won't run for president in 2008, announced on his Web site that he has turned over the chairmanship of organization to his brother, Jim.
"You created a grassroots organization that has taken our Party back. Now we'll work together and take our country back," wrote Tom Hughes, the group's new director. He replaces Tom McMahon, who is expected to join Dean at the DNC.