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Inside Politics
Robert Novak is a nationally syndicated columnist.

Howard Dean's return

Former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean
• The Candidates: Bush | Kerry
Democratic Party

WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- Practical Democratic politicians, intent on reversing a decade of decline, feel trapped in a bad dream with Howard Dean as the most prominent prospect to be the party's national chairman.

The mere thought of picking the 2004 presidential candidate who campaigned furthest to the left and was soundly repudiated by Democratic voters suggests inability to cope with political reality.

Dean has toned himself down, no longer resembling the screamer in Des Moines or the radical populist on the campaign trail.

His Sunday interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" was so polite that it instantly was labeled the "unscream." Nevertheless, Dean as national chairman would identify Democrats as the party of the Left, more interested in purity than victory.

Many Democrats I contacted entirely agree with me, but not publicly. Only former Sen. Bob Kerrey, out of office and virtually out of politics, states openly that Dean as Democratic National Committee chairman could be disastrous.

Others do not want to offend Dean's legions, hoping a white knight will lead the party of Jefferson and Jackson.

It's almost as if, after George McGovern carried but one state as 1972 Democratic nominee for president, he started running for national chairman.

Thirty-two years ago, the party wanted to get as far from McGovern as possible and selected a centrist: Dallas super-lawyer Robert S. Strauss. He defeated George Mitchell, a future Senate majority leader, and Charles Manatt, a future DNC chairman -- neither of them far out liberals.

Considering the DNC's Strauss-Mitchell-Manatt choice in 1972, today's committee members might feel short-changed by the eight potential candidates who appeared before the party's state chairmen (all DNC voting members) at Lake Buena Vista, Florida, last weekend.

It was not love at first sight. To the candidates, the chairmen looked like politicians interested in hotel suites and limos. To the chairmen, the candidates were unimpressive.

Each candidate was subjected to an imaginary "Russert test" -- how he would fare Sunday mornings under Tim Russert's "Meet the Press" interrogation.

Passing the test last Saturday with highest grades was former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who delivered a stemwinder. However, Kirk was a dreadful candidate running for the U.S. Senate in 2002, and one Democratic political consultant told me: "He'd be another Ron Brown."

Since Kirk is an African-American, as was Brown, that might sound racist. But the critic was referring to Brown's organizational failings as national chairman.

Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, who lost his seat in the state's redistricting, is an excellent organizer who won high marks from all wings of the party as House Democratic Caucus chairman (1999-2003). But he flunked the Russert test in Florida.

The ideal combination of organizer and speaker appeared to be Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, but he bowed out after Republicans in the state legislature threatened to make his life miserable if he took the party post.

Many of the same people who backed Vilsack turned to former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard, who also would appeal to a broad cross-section of Democrats. But Blanchard set few hearts pounding last weekend.

Blanchard wants to be the candidate of the Democratic governors and engaged in a long telephone conversation with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. But Blanchard supporters contend Richardson has cozied up to Dean.

An undisguised presidential hopeful for 2008, Richardson might like to get rid of Dean by freezing him as DNC chairman. Dean has declared he cannot run for president if he is chairman, but nobody believes he would keep that promise if he ushers in usual opposition party gains after six years of a presidency. (Richardson told me the DGA will endorse later, "Probably a beyond-the-beltway moderate.")

So, while Al Gore and John Kerry may be history, Dean -- after losing 24 out of 25 primaries this year (he won in his home state of Vermont) -- is sticking around.

Speaking in Washington last week, Dean sounded more like a candidate for president than chairman. Under the rubric of "reform," he proposed greatly expanded governmental activity. "We are what we believe, and the American people know it," he declared.

That was the case on November 2, in the opinion of pragmatic Democrats who want anybody but Dean to head their party.

Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.

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