WASHINGTON - When Howard Dean was chosen to head their party, Democrats looked forward to the benefits of his bristling energy and zest for political combat.
But at a private meeting on Capitol Hill yesterday, a number of worried Senate Democrats warned Dean that he had been going overboard and needed to choose his words more carefully. The former Vermont governor and unsuccessful presidential candidate sparked controversy in recent days by referring to the GOP as "pretty much a white, Christian party," and declaring that a lot of Republicans have "never made an honest living in their lives."
Sen. Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, said that at the meeting, "There couldn't be any doubt that there was some concern, even by Dean himself," about how his comments have been received.
Also yesterday, two Democrats seen as rising stars in the party - Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. of Tennessee and Virginia Gov. Mark Warner - made a point of distancing themselves from Dean's remarks.
Ford, who plans a Senate run next year, said on the Don Imus radio show that if Dean could not "temper his comments, it may get to the point where the party may need to look elsewhere for leadership, because he does not speak for me."
After the Capitol Hill meeting, Senate Democrats continued to express support for Dean.
"Every single one of us has stuck our foot in our mouths at one point in our public careers, and we've paid for it the next day," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat.
But the flap demonstrated how Democrats remain conflicted about how sharply their party leaders should express themselves after the party's losses in the 2004 election.
"We really don't have a message right now," Ford said.
Dean, in a speech Monday, said that Republicans are "not very friendly to different kinds of people, they are a pretty monolithic party; it's pretty much a white, Christian party."
A recent poll found that 82 percent of Republicans identify themselves as white Christians, while the figure among Democrats was 57 percent. Given those findings, some defended Dean's comment. But many criticized it as divisive.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.