Democrats promise nonstop campaign

Posted: Monday, March 26, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Democrats say they urgently need to start an election winning streak after seeing power slip away both in Congress and the White House over the past six years.

So national party Chairman Terry McAuliffe poured dozens of staffers, poll watchers and money for phone banks into a special Pennsylvania Senate election earlier this week.

Republicans note that the intensive Democratic effort failed, but McAuliffe promises much more of the same.

''We're in full campaign mode, and we won't stop until we see a Democrat win the White House in 2004,'' McAuliffe said.

He's pledging extensive help from the national party this year in governors' races in Virginia and New Jersey and for mayors' races in New York and Los Angeles. Victories in these races could provide Democrats with momentum for the midterm elections for Congress and three dozen governorships in 2002.

But national Republicans say the Democrats' aggressive, nonstop campaign approach in both state and local races is more noise than substance.

The Republicans prefer to keep their future plans to themselves, provide financial help as needed and build strong local campaign operations.

And several state GOP officials said the practice of political parties flooding important state elections with outside help is nothing new.

McAuliffe insists the involvement of the Democratic National Committee at all levels will be far higher than in the past.

Just a few blocks away in Washington, the Republican leadership is watching the national Democrats' effort with a combination of curiosity and skepticism.

''We've heard a lot of tough talk and posturing coming out of Washington from the DNC in recent weeks,'' national Republican Chairman Jim Gilmore said, ''but Republicans know hard work at the grass-roots level and good candidates spell victory at the polls, and they proved that in Pennsylvania.''

Democrats targeted the state Senate campaign in a heavily Republican district that Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore won in November. Their polling had suggested that the Democrat in the race, attorney Melissa Maxman, was within striking distance of Republican Ted Erickson, executive director of Delaware County.

Erickson beat Maxman on Tuesday by 60 percent to 40 percent, and the GOP claimed another state Senate election in the Pittsburgh suburbs to retain a 30-20 advantage in the state Senate.

McAuliffe, who took the reins of the Democratic Party in February, said even unsuccessful efforts like this build up the party.

''The (national) Democratic Party will be involved in races all over the country,'' he said. McAuliffe has pledged training for local party aides, national staff help for local and state elections and modernization of state party computer technology and extensive financial help.

Gilmore said the GOP was taking a different tack.

''Our approach has been to rely upon people within the community itself, those running in the races, as opposed to sending in shock troops,'' he said, noting the national GOP provides financial help when needed. ''We will certainly watch the Democrats swooping down on races.''

The difference in the styles of the two chairmen appears matched to their tasks. Gilmore wants to hold the Republican advantage both nationally and in many states, while building and diversifying the party base. McAuliffe must chip away at the Republicans' edge while stoking the energy and frustration Democrats felt after the disputed presidential election.

''There is a unique sense of urgency for Democrats,'' said Democratic spokeswoman Jenny Backus. ''There's a focus and energy at the DNC rarely seen in an off-year.''

At the local level, Democrats say they have been pleased with the help they're getting from the national party.

Pennsylvania Democratic Chairwoman Tina Tartaglione said this week was the biggest commitment she's seen from the national party to a special legislative election. ''I applaud Terry McAuliffe's efforts. He can come to our state anytime he wants.''

At the same time, Florida Democratic chairman Bob Poe said the state party ''has talked more with the national party in the last six weeks than in the previous six years.''

State Republicans say their national party helps when needed, including with national staffers and expertise, but often leaves local elections in the hands of locals. New Jersey GOP Chairman Chuck Haytaian said the national GOP will provide whatever help is needed. In past elections, ''if we needed bells and whistles, we got them,'' he said.

In Pennsylvania, GOP officials weren't impressed with the Democratic blitz.

''Based on the results, we're encouraging the Democrats to do this at every turn,'' said David James, executive director of the Pennsylvania Republicans. ''We had a good chuckle.''

Will Lester covers polling and politics for The Associated Press.

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