Dean Likely to Become Democrats' New Chair

WASHINGTON -- Howard Dean emerged Tuesday as the almost assured new leader of the U.S. Democratic National Committee, as one of his main rivals quit the race and Democrats streamed to announce their support of a man whose presidential campaign collapsed one year ago.

Dean's dominance was secured after Martin Frost, a former representative from Texas, whom many Democrats viewed as the institutional counterpart to Dean, dropped out after failing -- in what had become an increasingly long-shot effort -- to win support from national labor unions. The AFL-CIO announced instead that it would remain neutral, freeing its affiliate members to do what they wanted, which proved in many cases to be boarding the Dean train.

"It's a fait accompli, it's over: Dean's going to be it," said Gerald McEntee, head of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, who runs the umbrella political organization for all the unions in the AFL-CIO.

Actually, the final word rests with the 447 members of the Democratic National Committee, who will vote on Feb. 12 in Washington on a successor to Terry McAuliffe. And Dean faces a last obstacle, the candidacy of Donnie Fowler, a Democratic operative from South Carolina.

Fowler aides said they hoped to benefit from the appearance of this as a two-man race with an opponent with a history of sometimes unorthodox political behavior. Still, they acknowledged that the possibility of a real competition was dimming.

There were few Democrats in Washington who doubted that Dean, the former governor of Vermont, was on the verge of taking over the party, with the support of much, though certainly not all, of its establishment. Democrats marveled at how someone who had been viewed as a symbol of some of the excesses of the party -- McEntee described Dean as "nuts" after he withdrew his endorsement of him in the middle of the presidential campaign -- was now on the brink of becoming a face of the opposition to President George W. Bush.

Democrats said Dean overcame the hurdles of his failed presidential candidacy by intensely courting Democratic leaders, assuring them that he was not the liberal and undisciplined caricature that many said they saw last year. He also freely made the kind of bread-and-butter promises that have always helped politicians win elections, promising to channel at least $11 million in national Democratic money to pay salaries at the state parties, Democratic officials said.