WASHINGTON — In 2005, when beleaguered Democrats picked hard-charging Howard Dean to lead their national party, he won them over with his energy, his aggression and his innovation.
But even some of Dean's supporters say the chairman has failed to manage the struggle over whether and how Florida and Michigan should participate in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
With no resolution in sight, and with prospects growing that not enough delegates remain for either Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama to claim the nomination outright, many Democrats say Dean's hands-off approach threatens party unity and risks a nasty fight this summer at the national convention.
Dean has kept in touch with senior Democrats in both states, but he has refused to take the lead in settling the Florida-Michigan question. He has said that arranging new elections for those states is "not my problem" and that if state Democrats want resolution, then bring him a plan.
Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a powerful Democratic ally that backs Clinton, worries that Dean has been too aloof.
"You don't want to be the chairperson of the Democratic Party with a devastating experience in Denver, so get it settled," McEntee said he told Dean recently. "He's the guy who should come up with the plan. & So it is his problem, and it should be sitting front and center on his desk in terms of problems to be solved now."
Florida and Michigan lost their delegates for holding primary elections earlier than DNC rules allowed. Many party leaders worry that not seating the delegates will depress Democratic turnout in two key states come November. But how those delegates are awarded could swing the nomination.
Dean backers say he must not jeopardize his neutrality, and any attempt to count the delegates could be seen as favoring one candidate over another. They say Dean has far less latitude under DNC rules than his critics suggest.
"I think Dean has stayed exactly the right course, which is stay in the background and work to find a consensus," said Elaine Kamarck, a member of the DNC rules committee and former senior adviser to Al Gore's presidential campaign. "If he were to get out front on this, people would be yelling at him that he shouldn't be out front on this. He can't win."
She said only two entities have the authority solve the problem: the DNC rules committee, which must okay any new election that could distribute delegates to the candidates; and the party's credentials committee, which decides who gets seated at the national convention.
Tad Devine, a senior Democratic strategist, agreed it would be politically and practically difficult for Dean to impose a solution, but the problem was foreseeable. Obama and Clinton are well-funded, and the party's way of awarding delegates based on a candidate's portion of the vote makes it hard for one strong candidate to overwhelm another.
Devine, who is neutral in the race, said Dean should have been working on the Florida-Michigan puzzle months ago.
"I hate to say it, but it was the politics of hope — people were just hoping that the situation would take care of itself," Devine said. "Now they're confronted with the reality of having to deal with a very difficult and complex situation in broad daylight."
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In a crowded room in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, Florida's Democratic House members met late into the evening but agreed on only two things: Any do-over election is unacceptable, and they're frustrated with Dean.
Asked about his leadership before the meeting, Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa joked, "Who?"
Some of the disaffection is provincial. Dean did nothing to try to ease Florida's harsh punishment for holding the early primary. Critics complained he and the DNC were more focused on preserving the primary calendar — which allowed only Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina to vote before Feb. 5 — than on winning the general election.
Dean then stayed silent when the early states pushed the candidates to agree not to campaign in Florida and Michigan, a move many Democrats saw as self-destructive.
"The buck stops there. You do have to lead," said DNC member Janee Murphy of Tampa. "His rules and bylaws committee did make a decision, but all of this was done to preserve the primary calendar. We are now past this, and this is now about preserving our party."
This is far from the enthusiasm that greeted Dean three years ago, when Florida members of the DNC came together to endorse Dean early in his campaign for chairman.
Many saw him as a visionary. As a candidate for president in 2004, Dean, the former governor of Vermont, briefly surged to the front with a model of Internet-based grass roots campaigning that brought new people to the party.
As DNC chairman, he pledged to reach beyond the liberal bastions and inner cities that have sustained yet limited the party. He also crafted a "Fifty State Strategy" to rebuild suffering chapters, including Florida's, with infusions of money and manpower.
In 2006, Democrats took back Congress.
"Here we are three years later — the Democrats won the House and Senate, we have paid staff in every state in the country, and we are a real national party," said Allan Katz, a DNC member from Tallahassee who is close to Dean. "I happen to think he provided a good balance."
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It is hard to contemplate a scenario in which Dean satisfies all sides, especially if the nomination comes down to Florida and Michigan. Right now, Obama leads Clinton by just over 100 delegates, with 10 contests left.
Michigan is considering a new election, while Florida's stakeholders are deeply divided. Sen. Bill Nelson, the state's top elected Democrat, and the Florida Democratic Party on Thursday gave the DNC a plan for holding a new primary by mail.
But the Obama and Clinton campaigns haven't embraced it, and all nine Florida Democrats in the U.S. House oppose holding any new election whatsoever.
Rep. Robert Wexler, who supports Obama, said he spoke with Dean this week and encouraged him to sit down with Obama, Clinton and Florida Democrats to broker some sort of deal.
"Stop with the technicalities — the chairman of the party needs to prevent us from driving over the cliff," Wexler said. "He did sound amenable to that."
Times political editor Adam C. Smith and researcher Melissa August contributed to this report. Wes Allison can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 463-0577.