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The Donkey Stirs

Dotty Lynch is the Senior Political Editor for CBS News. E-mail your questions and comments to Political Points
Despite frigid temperatures in Washington on Thursday, the Mayflower Hotel in there was hot. Literally. Just hours before John Kerry ended his post-election hibernation and came out swinging on health care, the hotel's lobby filled with smoke; apparently a planter in the lobby had caught fire.

But neither cold nor snow nor flaming planters could keep Kerry from speaking out on the issue that he tried in vain to make central to the election. His campaign spent millions on health care ads to compensate for the media's decision that Iraq, not health care, was the topic de jour. Speaking to the liberal health care group, Families USA, he attacked the Bush administration for a "cradle-to-grave irresponsibility plan" on health care and accusing them of hyping a phony crisis on Social Security.

At the same time on Thursday, a few blocks away, Kerry's Massachusetts compadre Ted Kennedy blasted the administration on Iraq, becoming the first U.S. senator to call for a pullout of American troops, claiming the military presence is fanning the flames of the conflict He compared Iraq to Vietnam and called for an exit strategy which would include negotiating the immediate return of 12,000 troops.

This one-two punch was the first high-profile sign of life from the Democrats since November, though beneath the radar some activity has started to replace the hand ringing. Two campaign committees have chosen very aggressive fundraisers, Sen. Chuck Schumer for the Democratic Senate campaign committee and Rep. Rahm Emanuel for the congressional committee. And strategies on Social Security and judicial nominations are being hammered out.

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While the media focus is on the elections in Iraq, Democrats are obsessing about two American elections, one for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, which will be decided on Feb. 12, and another for President in '08.

Howard Dean who burst on the scene in 2003 with a rousing speech to the DNC attacking the party leadership and claiming to represent the "Democratic wing of the Democratic party" is making significant headway in his attempt to take over that party. After an embarrassing exit last year, Dean is running strong. Whether the roll he is on is another big bluff similar to the one his advisors brag they pulled off in the summer of 2003 or the real deal, Dean is now seen as the guy to beat. Even some beltway types are starting to relax a bit about the possibility of giving Dean a big platform.

The Dean folks hired former Kerry manager Jim Jordan to help them put out the word to insiders that this was not the Howard "Joe Trippi" Dean of '04, but the one who made liberals in Vermont so unhappy in the nineties. Democratic consultant and DNC member Minyon Moore said that she is backing Dean because the party is at a crossroads and Dean has been a pathfinder on how to raise money and bring in new people. There are a couple of weeks to go and some heavy Democratic players, including some governors and congressional leaders are trying to forge a "stop Dean movement." Labor is deciding what to do and who to back. This has become a very personal contest and there is mud being slung on many sides. Martin Frost's folks claim Dean supporters are sending around negative e-mails about him (they are) and there are rumors of dirt "out there" that could blow Dean out of the water. But, with two weeks to go, it looks like it's Dean's to lose.

But one of the interesting things is how many big players don't have horses in this race. Former Reps. Martin Frost and Tim Roemer are hoping that the anti-Dean folks will coalesce around them, but so far the biggest names who should have a real stake in the outcome, the '08 crowd, are staying neutral. While the Clintons are "rumored" to be worried about Dean, one advisor denied it. "Hillary wouldn't even endorse (old friend and advisor) Harold Ickes," the consultant said with a chuckle.

Speaking of the New York senator, there is considerable movement in the race for '08. Hillary Clinton made a big speech that was interpreted (or over-interpreted) to be an attempt to reposition her as a moderate on the abortion issue. Also, Kerry has a well-funded PAC to keep his political options alive. John and Elizabeth Edwards are scheduled to headline the big "100 Club" fundraiser in New Hampshire on Feb. 5. Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh has been working the Democratic money folks in New York and has his team of advisors, including media consultant Anita Dunn and former Dean pollster Paul Maslin, already in place. His vote against the nomination of Condi Rice was his opening salvo in nomination politics. The dance is on; Hillary takes a step to the right, Evan to the left.

Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack is "thinking hard" about '08, according to his supporters and he rejected the race for DNC chair to explore a presidential option. Delaware Sen. Joe Biden said this week that '08 might just be his year to run. And, Democratic insiders are also buzzing about a blast from the past. Former V.P. Al Gore is apparently thinking hard about making a comeback in '08.

So the donkey stirs but which way it will move is still murky.

By Dotty Lynch

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