WASHINGTON -- And they're off! The 2004 presidential campaign began with Tuesday's midterm voting that gave President Bush a launch pad for his re-election drive and spurred finger-pointing Democrats to look beyond their current leaders for a fresh face.
''I think the national leadership did a miserable job of giving a theme to the election,'' said David Worley, former chair of the Georgia Democratic Party.
Worley joined a chorus of Democratic activists across the country who, in two dozen telephone interviews Wednesday, said the presidential prospects of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt were severely undercut by the election losses.
The political fallout may extend far beyond those two leaders to the entire crop of Washington-based Democrats eyeing a 2004 presidential bid, including former Vice President Al Gore, his ex-running mate Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.
It was not clear how long the Democratic discontent would last, but this was certain: Party members who had failed to coalesce around a midterm strategy found unity Wednesday in their anger and unease.
''I think it's going to be tough for our national leadership to run for president'' in light of the lackluster results, said Chris Cummiskey, a Democratic state senator in Phoenix. ''It's got to be tough for these guys who were looking for a series of victories to propel them into the 2004 presidential election.''
Instead, it was Bush who reaped the political rewards for getting personally involved in the midterm voting. Republicans seized control of the Senate, added seats to their House majority and denied Democrats their hoped-for majority of the nation's governorships.
The sweep gives Bush the mandate he lacked after his narrow 2000 presidential election victory. White House aides hastened work on a new tax-cut package, and predicted swift action in a newly GOP Senate to approve his judicial nominees and plans for a Department of Homeland Security.
Politically, the victories gave Bush a blush of invincibility. Despite an ailing economy, a sagging stock market and a spate of corporate scandals that Democrats tried to pin on the White House, Bush used the war against terrorism, potential conflict in Iraq and tensions in North Korea to make national security an issue that trumped all else.
''I really think this was a unique election,'' a grim-faced Gephardt said. ''You had the backdrop of 9/11, a lot of patriotism ... and concern about the national security and safety. And the president's popularity is very high.''
But there was a potential downside for Bush, according to Republican and Democratic operatives. With his party in full control, it will be hard to blame Democrats for failings in Washington and the president may find it difficult to keep his party's conservative constituents in line.
''He has to accept some responsibility here,'' said Craig Smith, political director in the Clinton White House. ''The question is what does he do with this power? Does he court moderates for '04 or does the Republican Congress pull him farther right?''
Democrats said the political landscape favors -- at least for now -- a presidential candidate from outside Washington capable of succeeding where party leaders failed this fall: Making the troubled economy stick to the Teflon-coated Bush.
Hungry for change, the Democratic community buzzed with speculation Wednesday about potential new candidates, including re-elected California Gov. Gray Davis, newly elected Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and even New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
''We need to go beyond just those who have articulated their intentions,'' said Donna Brazile, a Democratic operative who was Gore's campaign manager in 2000. ''The door is wide open to the Ed Rendells of the world, the Democratic governors and any Democrat who can stand up and come up with an alternative vision.''
Of the existing crop of candidates, Gore and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean worked the hardest to distance themselves from Bush on the economy, tax cuts, the war on terrorism and Iraq. Their stances may draw favor with Democratic primary voters who feel party leaders pulled their punches with Bush.
''The Democrats have to be the loyal opposition in fact and not just in name,'' Gore said in an interview with ABC News' Barbara Walters for the Friday night edition of ''20-20.''
''I mean taking a hard look at how we can talk about the real life concerns that families in this country are wrestling with every day and present a very forceful alternative, supporting the president when the president is right, but offering a constructive alternative and presenting it boldly when we think we have a better approach,'' Gore said.
Commenting on the election returns, Dean said, ''Democrats did well when they differed from Republicans and didn't try to play footsies with the right wing,''
Edwards and Kerry may suit Democrats' sudden taste for something new, but their efforts to distinguish themselves from Bush received little notice.
In a jab at his fellow Democrats, Kerry issued a statement Wednesday that said: ''Cynical strategies that would have Democrats avoid talking about foreign policy and national security or efforts to simply blame the president for the economy without offering an alternative vision defeat the best traditions of our party.''
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