Democrats seek effective voice

Posted: Monday, February 18, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Democrats are fighting a tide of public opinion these days -- especially President Bush's high approval rating -- without benefit of a dominant figure within the party to rally behind.

Party activists are more concerned now, however, that their troops rally behind leading Democrats who are willing to speak out. They said it's not unusual for the party out of the White House to be at this stage without one dominant figure, although former House Speaker Newt Gingrich played that leadership role for the Republicans in the mid-1990s.

''The reality is we have several spokesmen, all of whom are very good,'' said Mark Mellman, who polls for the Democratic National Committee. ''When you don't have the White House, you don't have a spokesman.''

Democratic national chairman Terry McAuliffe, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt have been leading the charge for the Democrats.

Potential presidential candidates like Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts, John Edwards of North Carolina and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut are among those who have offered their views in policy speeches over the last few months. The Democrats' 2000 presidential nominee, Al Gore, joined the debate this month.

Gore's re-entry to the political debate, including a foreign policy speech this week, has activists watching to see what political approach he will take to make voters forget his 2000 failure.

''Democrats want to rally around tomorrow, and they don't know who tomorrow is,'' said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. ''Gore may turn out to be tomorrow, but right now he's yesterday.''

Bush's job approval rating has been in the 80 percent range since he rallied the nation after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Republicans now have a big advantage in public opinion on fighting terrorism, an edge on handling the economy and generally break even on education.

Former President Clinton remains the hot draw on the Democrats' money-raising circuit, and Democrats probably won't have settled on a dominant voice on issues until the presidential nomination fight nears its close.

''No one's going to be appointed or anointed,'' said Democratic consultant Dane Strother, who noted the lack of a national party theme can help conservative Democrats at the local level.

The presence of many voices within the party is a good thing, because Democrats get to test the kinds of themes that can work both in this year's congressional elections and in 2004, said Al From, founder and chief executive of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

''Most congressional elections are fought on local and regional issues,'' From said, ''and for the Democrats there is no particular advantage to nationalize this election because Bush has such high approval ratings.''

Those willing to speak against a popular president have found it can be tough.

When Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, stood up to the White House last month on tax cuts and their effect on the budget surplus, Republicans responded with a withering assault that drove up his negative ratings.

''I was not pleased with how the rank-and-file Democrats sat silent while the Bushies tried to demonize Daschle,'' said Paul Begala, a Democratic consultant and former Clinton White House staff member. Several Democrats say privately that many elected officials within their party have been intimidated by the popular president.

Democrats note the overall competition between the two parties remains close in the congressional races. Democrats still have the advantage on issues like Social Security and health care, which could become influential issues closer to the congressional elections.

''My only concern is that there aren't enough people standing up and fighting,'' Begala said. ''To win an argument, you have to engage it.''

That debate remains a complicated task for Democrats given the current climate and Bush's popularity, said political scientist Ross Baker of Rutgers University.

''The Democrats' message has to be very modulated and targeted, and it's a real test of political dexterity of Democratic leaders to land a few soft blows on the president and soften him up a little,'' Baker said. ''To be the loyal opposition doesn't mean you have to be a lapdog to the president.''

The budget debate, with its tax cuts and reductions in many domestic programs, will be a rich campaign target for Democrats, said Democratic consultant James Carville. He said they will have to figure out who is most effective at telling that story.

''When we find out who can do that, bingo!'' Carville said. ''We've got a nominee.''

Will Lester covers politics and polling for The Associated Press.

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