Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean faces several formidable challenges. Some U.S. states are determined to move up the dates of their presidential primaries, despite the potential for upending the nomination process, and the party's 2008 convention in Denver, Colorado, is already dealing with labor and financial woes.
Dean's biggest test will come next year when the party will serve primarily as a shadow campaign operation for its presidential nominee.
But first he must contend with Florida, whose decision to push its primary to Jan. 29 could set off a ripple effect among other states eager to move up as well. The party's rules and bylaws committee is expected to reject Florida's plan at an Aug. 25 meeting in Washington, but that was not expected to stop Democrats in the state from observing the new primary date.
Nearly a dozen other states, including California and New Jersey, have already moved their primaries or caucuses _ party meetings to endorse nominees - to Feb. 5. A dozen more are considering such moves. The bid to hold earlier primaries gives states more influence in selecting a party's nominee for the 2008 presidential race.
With the first nominating contests just six months away, the campaigns of Democratic presidential candidates are frustrated with the uncertainty. It has inhibited their ability to craft a strategy for winning the nomination in what already promises to be an unprecedented race because of the plethora of early contests, record-breaking fundraising and an unusually crowded field.
Critics contend that a stronger chairman might have persuaded Florida Democrats to abide by party rules not to jump ahead of Feb. 5 and refuse to participate in the January primary, which was championed by the state's Republican governor and legislature. Others say Dean did what he could to fight the change, including lobbying Democratic legislators. Ultimately, they said there was little he could do to alter the outcome.
"When it came down to it, our state executive committee said there was zero support for holding anything other than a January 29 primary," Florida Democratic Party spokesman Mark Bobriski said. "It was a force of nature here - they didn't want to see Democratic voters disenfranchised."
For his part, former Democratic Party chairman Don Fowler said states have been poised to upend the primary calendar for years, and regrettably for Dean, it happened on his watch.
"He couldn't have done anything to make this go away - no national chairman can," Fowler said. "The folks in the states would just say, 'Go back to Washington and mind your own business."'
Then there is Denver, which will host the party's convention next year - a selection that has been problematic, mostly because of fundraising challenges and the city's fractious relationship with organized labor, a key Democratic Party constituency.
Last month, the convention host committee said it would fall well short of meeting its quarterly fundraising goal. And the AFL-CIO has threatened to force Democrats to abandon Denver after Colorado's Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter vetoed a bill making it easier to set up all-union workplaces.
Dean declined to be interviewed for this story. His aides note that many of the problems he faces have befallen other party chairmen and that Republicans are coping with similar ones, including a potentially chaotic primary calendar and fundraising for their 2008 convention.
The difference this time, Dean aides argue, is that the Democratic Party will be better prepared for the general election than ever before.
"Governor Dean's legacy will be to ensure that our nominee will have a strong infrastructure to win the presidency and to truly be a national party," spokeswoman Karen Finney said.
Underscoring all of this is Dean's vision for how the party should operate. The former Vermont governor is widely popular with state parties and many grass-roots Democrats, who helped fuel his insurgent 2004 presidential candidacy. But he is still viewed skeptically by much of the Washington-based political establishment.
Some of Dean's most vocal detractors were previously advisors to former President Bill Clinton, potentially complicating matters between the party and its presidential front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Nationally, the party's fundraising trails that of the Republican Party. The party has pulled in about US$28 million (Ђ20 million) so far this year, compared with more than US$46 million (EUR 33 million) for the Republican National Committee.
Dean's focus has been on strengthening state parties, irking those who believe the national party's chief function is to help fund competitive races. Dean's effort to create a national voter database within the party has been challenged by operatives of another, for-profit company building a competing voter file.
And his so-called "50-state strategy," which has sent paid organizers in state parties across the country, has been mocked by some as naive and ineffective.
Still, to Dean's fans - and there are legions of them - he has taken a much-needed sledgehammer to a calcified Democratic establishment.
"Among DNC members, there's just wild enthusiasm for Howard," said Elaine Kamarck, a former Democratic strategist and professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "The people he's upsetting are the Washington-based political class, who make a lot of money making television ads."
Kamarck produced an analysis this year testing whether the 50-state strategy had helped Democrats win House seats last year. She concluded that, in districts where the party had placed operatives, Democratic voter turnout went up measurably beyond the "bounce" Democrats were getting nationally.
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