The chairman’s quiet campaign

Topics: War Room,

Just before Howard Dean appeared for his first press conference as the Democrats’ new leader, a reporter asked a DNC aide to make sure that Dean spoke loudly so that he could be heard in the back of the over-crowded briefing room. “Thanks a lot,” Tom Ochs shot back. “I’ve spent the last two months trying to get him not to do that.”

Ochs ran Dean’s campaign for the DNC chairmanship — quietly, and not just in the avoiding-another-scream sense. While other DNC candidates courted the press, Dean never needed the national exposure that a thousand interviews will bring. In a way, he needed the opposite — he needed to persuade the 447 voting members of the DNC that the man who made so much noise in the presidential race could also do the quieter work of reforming the Democratic party.

That’s why Ochs had Dean focus almost obsessively on a single task: talking with voting members of the DNC. It worked. As John Patrick, a DNC member from Texas, told us, those one-on-one conversations left him seeing Dean “through different eyes.” During the Iowa caucuses, Patrick campaigned for Dick Gephardt — which is to say, against Howard Dean — and he initially backed former Texas Rep. Martin Frost in the DNC race. But when Frost dropped out, Dean was an easy second choice. “I don’t think he’s a different person than he was in Iowa, but I think I have a different perspective on him now,” Patrick said. “I’m not saying that I made the wrong choice then, but I’m certainly looking at Gov. Dean — Chairman Dean — differently now.”

For Ochs, that was exactly the plan. Backstage at the DNC Winter meeting just after Dean won the chairmanship, Ochs told us that he signed on with the Dean campaign knowing that he had an uphill race ahead of him. “People were saying, ‘Howard Dean?’ People — probably half the people in this room — people were saying, ‘Dean’s running for president!’ ‘Dean’s too liberal.’ We knew that. We knew it.” But from early on, Ochs said, “what these voting members wanted, the most important thing they wanted, was somebody who is going to stand up for them.”

Ochs said that the voters’ desire made Dean’s biggest perceived negative — his outspoken opposition to both Bush and Bush-lites — a positive in the DNC race. “After all,” Ochs said, “we were running to be the chairman of the Democratic Party. It’s OK to be a partisan.” Again and again, DNC members told us this weekend that Dean sealed the deal when he talked with them, either one-on-one or in the small regional caucus meetings around the country. Sober and subdued, Dean persuaded voters that he could be not just a fighter who stands up to George Bush but also a listener who will carry their concerns to the national party headquarters. Once voters had taken their own measure of Dean up close and in person, it was harder for anti-Dean forces to succeed with the kind of broad-brushed smears that might have worked on a larger, less involved electorate.

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The anti-Dean movement never got any traction among DNC voters, and some of the Democrats with the most interest in derailing Dean candidacy’s didn’t put much effort in it. While Nancy Pelosi, Bill Richardson, Bill Clinton and others dabbled in anti-Deanery, they gave up when it became clear they weren’t getting anywhere. Ochs figures that the Clintons decided they didn’t need to play a big role; Hillary Clinton wouldn’t let a DNC chairman — whoever it is — stand in the way of what she wants to do.

But Dean isn’t exactly a nobody, either, and the celebrity status left over from his presidential run helped him in the DNC race. When Dean reached out to DNC voters around the country, they almost always took his calls. Later, Ochs said, some DNC voters complained that other candidates hadn’t tried to call them — even though they had. If Howard Dean is on the line, you pick up the phone. If it’s Donnie Fowler calling, you might not even remember that he tried.

While Dean has won over the DNC’s voters, he’s got a long way to go with the general public. Gallup says Americans have an unfavorable impression of Dean, and TV talking heads reading Republican talking points aren’t going to help the public warm to him. But Ochs insists that Dean doesn’t need widespread public support to do his job well. “It’s not necessary, it’s not necessary,” he told us. “The job he ran for doesn’t require someone to be popular among the vast American population. It would be nice, but it’s not necessarily a requirement.”

It may not be a requirement, but Dean is clearly trying. At his press conference today, Dean joined Hillary Clinton in moving for middle ground on abortion, expressed an interest in engaging with evangelical Christians, and made it clear that he’ll be spending much of his time working in the red states. That doesn’t mean that Dean is swinging right; he ripped into the Bush administration in his acceptance speech, and he said that Democrats are going to fight to take the country back from Republicans who “can’t be trusted with taxpayers’ money.”

But Dean spoke with more determination than emotion. And when reporters tried to provoke him at the press conference with the worst that has been said about him — Newt Gingrich has said that Dean’s election amounts to a Democratic “death wish” — Dean refused to take the bait. He laughed off the comments and said he hoped to prove them wrong. Asked whether he has changed his style, Dean laughed again. “I’m not a ‘Zen’ person, so it’s hard to answer stylistic questions,” he said. “I am who I am.”

You could hear him just fine in the back of the room.

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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