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DNC Race Tight as Dems Seek Gains      02/23 06:09

   Russia's defense minister on Wednesday hailed the military's performance in 
Syria, saying new Russian weapons have proven their worth in the conflict.

   ATLANTA (AP) -- Just days before Democratic activists pick a new party 
chair, the contest to head the Democratic National Committee remains fluid, as 
national leaders grapple with how to turn an outpouring of liberal protest 
against President Donald Trump into political gains.

   A tight race between front-runners Tom Perez, a former labor secretary, and 
Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota congressman, marks the first heavily contested 
battle to run the organization in recent history. The contest comes with 
Democrats facing a power deficit in Washington and around the country after 
years of losses in Congress, governor's mansions and statehouses, while also 
having no unifying national leader since former President Barack Obama left the 
White House.

   Perez, who was encouraged by Obama administration officials to run for the 
post, has emerged as the apparent front-runner, with independent Democratic 
strategists tracking him at about 205 votes. But it's not yet clear whether 
Perez or Ellison --- or one of six other long-shot candidates --- is positioned 
to capture the required majority of the 447-member national party committee.

   The strategists spoke on condition of anonymity because many DNC members 
they track do not want the vote count discussed publicly.

   Ellison, backed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and his supporters, has the 
support of about 153 members, the strategists said. Ellison spokesman Brett 
Morrow blasted the count as "totally inaccurate" and said his camp remains 
"incredibly confident."

   Lis Smith, a spokeswoman for another candidate, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of 
South Bend, Indiana, also disputed the count. Buttigieg is touting his recent 
endorsement from former DNC Chairman Howard Dean, widely regarded as a 
successful party leader.

   But neither the Ellison nor Buttigieg campaigns would release their own 
tracking numbers, and multiple other campaigns said the strategists are 
accurately reflecting the state of the still-competitive race.

   The counts have South Carolina Democratic Party chair Jaime Harrison at 27 
votes, a number that could make him a kingmaker who tilts the race to the 
eventual winner. The counts have Buttigieg and Sally Boynton Brown, executive 
director of the Idaho party, combining for fewer than 20 votes, with remaining 
DNC members uncommitted.

   Party leaders will vote on the final day of its three-day meeting that 
begins Thursday in Atlanta, with as many rounds as required for a candidate to 
secure a majority.

   In a forum hosted late Wednesday by CNN, the candidates avoided taking shots 
at one another, instead blasting Trump, offering general promises to rebuild 
party infrastructure and pledging to reconnect with voters who have abandoned 
Democratic candidates.

   More important than the nationally televised event is the next two days 
leading candidates will spend wooing the state party chairs, longtime activists 
and donors who make up the full party committee.

   The race could easily tip to either Perez or Ellison; a third possibility is 
that the committee ends up in deadlocked with the two current leaders short of 
a majority. That could open up the door for candidates like Harrison, Buttigieg 
or Boynton Brown to rally more support in later rounds of voting. There's also 
the chance that any of the three trailing hopefuls could drop out and endorse 
Perez or Ellison.

   "Nobody really knows what's going to happen on Saturday," said Texas 
Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, who's backing Perez.

   Some Ellison backers question whether Perez, who has spent a career in 
government but not electoral politics, is the right man to harness the 
anti-Trump energy and use it to rebuild the party. Other Democrats, meanwhile, 
worry whether Ellison, an unapologetically combative liberal, is the right 
messenger for a Democratic Party that has lost standing across wide swaths of 
the country.

   Last week, New Hampshire Democratic chairman Ray Buckley dropped out of the 
race, throwing his support to Ellison. According to people with knowledge of 
the conversations, Buckley had asked his rivals for control over day-to-day 
operations of the organization, as well as the next presidential convention, in 
return for his support. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because 
they were not authorized to disclose details of any overtures and negotiations.

   In a statement announcing Buckley's backing, Ellison said he's asked the 
longtime party official to "lead our effort to provide the support and 
resources the state parties need in a new and innovative 57-state strategy."

   Buckley has been lobbying the roughly dozen members that were supporting his 
bid to back Ellison.

   Last week, Perez told supporters he was just 44 votes away from winning the 
race, prompting a swift response from Ellison, who charged his rival with 
pushing "an unverifiable public whip count" and putting "a finger on the 
scale." Ellison has picked up a number of high-profile supporters in the past 
10 days, including several state party chairs and the backing of the SEIU, a 
prominent union.


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