Dean Cheers Rank-and-File Democrats

Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic Party, has once again made news. And, once again, it's because of something he has said. His colorful description of Republicans may have caused some Democratic leaders to wince. But party support outside of Washington, D.C., remains strong.

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Howard Dean's sharp tongue landed him in the news again this week. The often unpredictable chairman of the Democratic National Committee has bothered some members of his party with remarks about Republicans. The comments led to rebukes from several leading Democrats, but no apologies from Dean. NPR's Mara Liasson has the story.

MARA LIASSON reporting:

The latest Dean flap began on Monday when he described the GOP as pretty much a white Christian party. According to polls, nearly 80 percent of self-identified Republicans are white and Christian. But Dean's remark could be framed by Republicans as an attack on those voters, and that's exactly what Republicans did, happy to take advantage of yet another opportunity to paint Dean as an angry, out-of-control embarrassment. And Dean's comment was just his most recent zinger. Here's another one.

Dr. HOWARD DEAN (Chairman, Democratic National Committee): The idea that you have to wait on line eight hours to cast your ballot in Florida, there's something the matter with that. Well, Republicans, I guess, can do that, 'cause there's a lot of them that have never made an honest living in their lives.

LIASSON: And earlier, Dean had said that Tom DeLay ought to return to Houston where he can serve his jail sentence. DeLay, of course, has not been charged with a crime.

The reaction from Republicans was unsurprising, but what made all this into an actual news story was the negative reaction from Democrats, like former vice presidential candidate John Edwards and Senator Joseph Biden. Biden had this to say on the ABC program "This Week."

(Soundbite of "This Week")

Senator JOSEPH BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware): He doesn't speak for me with that kind of rhetoric, and I don't think he speaks for the majority of Democrats. But I wish that rhetoric would change.

LIASSON: But for others, like Democratic operative David Sirota, the latest controversy over Dean was less about the party chairman and more about the party itself.

Mr. DAVID SIROTA (Democratic Operative): Now, look, we can have a debate about whether Howard Dean's rhetoric on this day or that day was perfect. I mean, the question really is: Why do the Democrats seem instinctively and reflexively willing to go after their own chairman?

LIASSON: The Democrats' Washington elite has always been nervous about Howard Dean, and many congressional Democrats tried to stop his election. But beyond the Beltway, where Dean's support is strong, the outspoken former governor does not appear to be in trouble. Randy Button is the chairman of the Democratic Party in the red state of Tennessee.

Mr. RANDY BUTTON (Chairman, Tennessee Democratic Party): I did not support him for chair, but after he was elected, he came to Tennessee early. And I just felt real comfortable, and I think a lot of our legislative leaders felt comfortable when they met with him. And, you know, occasionally, you're going to say things that you like to retract, because you're out there a lot, and this may be one of those cases. I'd say you can't just judge on one issue his job performance. You got to look at what he's doing, not what he's saying.

LIASSON: What Dean is doing is just fine with Paul Berendt, the state chairman in Washington, where Democrats are facing a tough Senate race next year.

Mr. PAUL BERENDT (Chairman, Washington Democratic Party): Howard Dean has helped develop fund-raising strategies that don't just help the DNC, but they're helping state parties as well. So we see Dean as someone who's going to shake it up and provide a little different culture back there that we can actually gain some of these seats.

LIASSON: There is some grumbling inside the party that Dean hasn't lived up to the high expectations he created for fund-raising. After showing Democrats how to use the Internet to raise money during the presidential primaries, the Democratic Party raised about $18.6 million in the first four months of this year. The Republicans raised $42.6 million. Dean's spokesmen say that comparison isn't fair. They point out that he's raised more money than any other DNC chairman during an off year.

By the end of the week, Democrats seemed a little sheepish that they were once again reverting to the circular firing squad, and they closed ranks around Dean. He appeared in the capital yesterday, flanked by Minority Leader Harry Reid and Senators Schumer, Stabenow and Durbin. Dean refused to answer questions about his provocative remarks.

Dr. DEAN: You know, I think a lot of this is exactly what the Republicans want, and that's a diversion. The truth is we hardly had any discussions about what's going on in the media circus and all that stuff in the last two weeks. What we're focused on is how to have a decent Social Security system, how to have a strong national defense, how to have jobs in America again, how to deal with incredibly high gas prices and get a decent energy bill which actually will do something about gas prices. That's what our agenda is.

LIASSON: Democrats are still divided about whether Howard Dean is good for the party or not. The answer to that question won't be clear for another year and a half, and that's because the first real test for Dean remains what it's always been: whether he can get more Democrats into office in next year's midterm elections. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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