Washington When Howard Dean opens his mouth, Democrats cringe - and Republicans pounce.
His depictions of Republicans as "pretty much a white, Christian party," with many who "never made an honest living," have prompted top Democrats to beseech him to cool his rhetoric. They also have questioned how much more the party will take from its volatile chairman.
Defenders dismiss it all as just Howard Dean being Howard Dean.
After all, remember the Dean "scream" after the Iowa primary? His political courtship of "the guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks"? His recent suggestion that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay return to Houston to serve jail time?
Dean's enthusiasm - the same he demonstrated in his 2004 presidential campaign - is helping to energize the party's core, his supporters say. But critics suggested Wednesday that Dean's darts are threatening fund raising and may be driving away the GOP moderates and independents the party needs to court as it rebuilds from its 2004 defeats.
Dean's "white Christian" remarks have drawn sharp criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike.
"That's not the way you distinguish someone's politics," said Dick Harpootlian, former South Carolina Democratic chairman. "It forces us to distance ourselves from him."
GOP Party Chairman Ken Mehlman joked that "a lot of folks who attended my Bar Mitzvah would be surprised" he heads a Christian party.
Leading Democrats, including some with their eye on the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, are increasingly vocal in their criticism of the former Vermont governor's choice of words - while praising him as a party organizer.
Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware and 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards said Dean didn't speak for them. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, in New Hampshire on Wednesday, called Dean's comments "ill-advised."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters she disagreed with Dean's line on Republicans, saying, "I don't think (it) was a helpful statement."
When such high-profile Democrats make such comments publicly, "that to me is a pretty clear message that the party leadership would like a change in focus from the party chairman," said Democratic consultant Doug Schoen, who did polling for President Clinton.
"I think it's a question of priorities," Schoen said.
Dean said Wednesday that Republican attacks on him were intended to divert attention from the country's problems and make him the issue instead. He refused to back down from his remarks on Republicans, saying the GOP "unfortunately, by and large" was as he described it.
"And they have the agenda of the conservative Christians," Dean told NBC's "Today" show, ignoring the fact that much of the recent criticism has come from fellow Democrats, not Republicans.
Dean is "the loose cannon on the deck of the Democratic Party," said James Thurber, an American University political scientist. "He doesn't have the discipline many in the party wish he had."