ST. PAUL - There has never been a Democratic national chairman with as much firsthand knowledge about running for president as Howard Dean.
Four years ago, at this stage in the race, he was flying high. Now, Dean is being sued by Democrats in Florida and second-guessed over how he is spending the party's money. He seldom receives so much as a call seeking advice from this year's candidates.
The rise and abrupt fall of his campaign now seems to hold lessons for some of the current contenders, from what it means to assume an air of inevitability to the dangers of counting on grass-roots energy to translate into votes. But Dean also sees ways in which the field has adopted elements of his candidacy, like its strong opposition to the war in Iraq.
"I often find myself ahead of the curve," he said, a satisfied smile falling over his face. "Unfortunately, 'I told you so,' is an incredibly unsuccessful campaign slogan."
For Dean, this could be a moment of great prominence, a chance to tower over the party at a buoyant moment. But most days, he conducts business in near obscurity, rarely appearing on television or at public events. It is a sharp departure from chairmen such as Ronald H. Brown, a power broker known in 1992 for firing off strategy memorandums, or Terry McAuliffe, a highly visible figure and one of the party's most successful fund-raisers, who stepped down in 2005.
Dean travels the country without an entourage, often stopping in state capitals like Minnesota's, inspecting the progress of projects such as a door-knocking program that encourages people to stop by 25 houses three times before Election Day.
Dean appears content with his role, talking about the past and the present with a relaxed air of confidence. For more than an hour, over lunch at the St. Paul Grill, he scoops up details about the race, asking questions only a former candidate who spent months in Iowa and New Hampshire might know.
"The only wistful moments I've had are at the debates," said Dean, who has been seated in the audience for many of them. "I relish the combat, and I miss it."
He avoids mentioning specific names of Democratic candidates - "I try to stay out of the business of the campaigns," he declared - but ultimately slips in a reference to Senators Hillary Clinton of New York and Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware.
"I know what it's like to be where they are - all of them, from Biden to Clinton," Dean said. "Because I've been in all of their positions: bottom, middle, and top."