The anti-Dean cometh -- or does he?

By Tim Grieve

Published January 31, 2005 2:23PM (EST)

The anti-Dean may be emerging, and he might not be Martin Frost.

The executive committee of the Association of State Democratic Chairs has made its endorsement in the race for the chairmanship of the DNC. Its pick: Donnie Fowler.

Fowler isn't quite an anti-Dean like John Kerry was an anti-Dean. The 37-year-old strategist brings to the race a strong antiwar stand and some of Dean's passion for innovation and reform. But he doesn't bring the baggage that comes with actually being Howard Dean, and party insiders are a whole lot more comfortable with him than they ever would be with the former governor of Vermont. Fowler is the son of former DNC chairman Don Fowler, and he has helped run races for Kerry, Al Gore and a host of others.

When we talked to Fowler last week, he insisted that Frost, the former congressman from Texas, was the one who was "going to run as an anti-Dean candidate, playing on the fears of people who don't want to change or have too much invested in how the DNC is running right now." Fowler told us that he's "not an anti-Dean candidate" because he feared that being "anti-Dean" would mean being "anti-grass-roots" and "anti-innovation." But that hasn't stopped Fowler and his staff from beating up on Dean when they can. Their pitch: Dean had a grass-roots movement "grow up under him" in the presidential race, and he wasn't able to channel that energy into a victory in the primaries.

Dean's supporters will stress that Fowler's ASDC endorsement comes just from its executive committee and not from the ASDC as a whole; several ASDC members have already endorsed Dean, including Scott Maddox, the chairman of the Florida Democratic Party. And a report in the New York Times suggests that even the executive committee endorsement is a little less world-shaking than it might seem. There are 15 members on the ASDC's executive committee. The Times says that Dean led Fowler and Frost 6-5-3 on the committee's first vote, but anti-Dean sentiment appears to have come together on the second vote, giving Fowler an 8-6 majority win over Dean.

The news for Dean wasn't all bad this weekend; he picked up the endorsement of Harold Ickes, a Clinton aide and loyalist who presumably wouldn't have endorsed anybody without at least tacit permission from Bill and Hillary.

Still, as Fowler points out, there's now a hole in the aura of "inevitability" about a Howard Dean chairmanship, and that can be important in more than just the cosmic way. Labor leaders will be endorsing a candidate this week. If they think Dean is a foregone conclusion, they may get on board no matter what they think of him for fear of being on the wrong side of the winner. But if labor voters see an opening for other candidates, they could throw their weight toward Fowler or Frost, changing the dynamic of the race in an instant. Anyone remember Iowa?

Tim Grieve

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

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