Howard Dean elbowed his way into the 2005 contest for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee with the same unbridled energy, litany of ideas big and small and outsized self-confidence that he brought to the 2004 campaign for the party’s presidential nomination. And, just as Dean transformed the presidential race, so he has transformed the contest for a position that in recent years has been little more than that of a bagman for candidates who don’t actually want to touch the special-interest money.

Dean is not assured of winning the chairmanship. Before the former Vermont governor announced his candidacy on January 11–in the form of an “I’m running” e-mail to that very long list of Deaniacs–Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi had sent signals that they would back former Congressman Tim Roemer, a member of the 9/11 Commission who officially entered the race in more classic Washington fashion: with an appearance on ABC-TV’s This Week. Former Texas Representative Martin Frost, former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, former Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Leland, New Democrat Network president Simon Rosenberg, and Donnie Fowler, who briefly managed Wesley Clark’s 2004 presidential bid, are mounting less likely candidacies. And Kate Michelman, the former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, is pondering a bid, inspired at least in part by the fact that Roemer is a foe of abortion rights and that some other candidates have talked about the need to de-emphasize the choice issue.

But it is Dean who can put the race on the front pages and the evening news, and that is precisely where it belongs.

The Democratic Party is a mess. Its decline at the federal, state and local levels, while not universal, has been proceeding for the better part of a decade, and although the miserable results of 2004 contests should have forced a radical reassessment, the party has yet to decide whether it wants to fight its way back to relevance. With Dean there is no uncertainty; while other contenders wrestle with the question of how to position the party in the media-hyped “moral-values” debate, Dean’s letter of announcement eschewed triangulation in favor of truth: “That word–‘values’–has lately become a codeword for appeasement of the right-wing fringe. But when political calculations make us soften our opposition to bigotry, or sign on to policies that add to the burden of ordinary Americans, we have abandoned our true values.” The man who has indicated his willingness to trade another shot at the presidency for the thankless task of reminding Democrats that an opposition party is actually supposed to oppose the party in power launched his run for the chairmanship with a refreshingly blunt assessment of the partisan zeitgeist: “The Democratic Party will not win elections or build a lasting majority solely by changing its rhetoric, nor will we win by adopting the other side’s positions. We must say what we mean–and mean real change when we say it.”

Dean is, of course, correct. But is he the correct candidate for the chairmanship? His presidential run was inspired in its use of new technologies and grassroots fundraising, in its willingness to get ahead on issues like the war and in the overall boldness of its approach–all characteristics that a resurgent Democratic Party must emulate. But Dean’s penchant for causing unnecessary controversy, his often testy relations with the media and lingering memories of his 2004 campaign’s collapse will cause qualms even among some progressives. Ultimately, however, Dean is the candidate against whom the 447 delegates to the party’s winter meeting on February 10-12 will measure the other contenders. And the physician will have plenty of opportunity at upcoming party meetings in St. Louis, Sacramento and New York to make the case that he’s got the cure for what ails the country’s oldest political party.

Democrats need a great big, high-profile fight over what they want their party to be, and Dean’s candidacy will give them that. What remains to be seen is whether it will give them a rationale for finishing the internal fight and finally taking the battle to George W. Bush and the Republicans.