WASHINGTON -- All during the past year, Democrats scrambled without success to regain their footing against the Republicans and their popular president with political momentum fueled by the public's anxiety about terrorism.
With the 2004 presidential race looming, Al Gore appeared to be moving toward another run for the office in a possible rematch with President Bush.
Then unexpected events in December offered a reminder of how quickly the political winds can shift.
Republicans, backed by the president and his wartime campaign themes, had just surged to historic midterm election victories Nov. 5. The GOP gained ground in the Republican-controlled House and narrowly reclaimed control of the Senate.
Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., was preparing to reassume his role as Senate majority leader and Republicans were ready to flex their newfound political muscle.
Then Lott made his now infamous tribute to Strom Thurmond on Dec. 5 as the South Carolina senator celebrated his 100th birthday. Lott said if Thurmond had been elected in 1948 the nation would have been a lot better off. Thurmond ran for president on the segregationist platform of the ''Dixiecrats.''
A storm of protest from both conservatives and liberals grew over Lott's comments and his continuous apologies failed to stem the tide. Just more than two weeks after Thurmond's party, Lott stepped down and Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, a favorite of the Bush administration, moved quickly to fill the gap. Now Republicans are looking to repair the damage.
''Lott's situation reminds us just how fragile political success can be,'' said political analyst Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.
Soon after the Republican gains in the elections, Congress passed the Bush administration's proposal for the new Department of Homeland Security -- a change that could dramatically alter federal government in the coming years.
While Republicans were having their way much of the year, Democrats got a glimmer of hope in early December when they rallied to hold onto Sen. Mary Landrieu's seat in a Louisiana runoff election.
Now Democrats have to assess their political strengths and weaknesses after getting steamrolled in the general election.
''Democrats have to figure out whether the last election was a one-shot setback or whether it suggested deeper problems within their party,'' said Robert Shapiro, a political scientist at Columbia University.
The Democrats have the added burden of competing under new campaign finance laws passed this year that ban unrestricted donations known as ''soft money'' from labor unions and corporations to the national political parties.
Democrats had become adept enough at collecting soft money in recent years to neutralize some of the Republicans' financial advantages. Democrats are scrambling to get more competitive under the new rules.
''The terrain has shifted dramatically,'' said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication. ''If the courts uphold the law, it could give a structural advantage to the Republicans in perpetuity.''
More than half a dozen Democrats are getting ready to navigate in these tricky currents while making a run for the presidency.
After spending much of the last year testing the waters, Gore was starting to wonder late in the year whether he wanted to run again despite the doubts of many in his party. Associates knew of his hesitance, but said Gore's mood would shift from day to day.
On Dec. 15, Gore surprised many by bowing out of the 2004 presidential race where he would have certainly been the early front runner among Democrats.
Now Democrats have a wide-open competition for the party's presidential nomination. Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is already running and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry has formed an exploratory committee. Others are expected to enter the race soon.
The competition to pick a Democratic nominee may not be that relevant unless Bush stumbles, said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.
If the economy bounces back and Bush avoids a foreign policy morass, ''it doesn't matter if the Democrats put up (Missouri Rep.) Dick Gephardt, John Kerry or (retired General) Wesley Clark,'' Rothenberg said.
''But if the president faces domestic and international problems, then almost any of the Democrats could run credible races.''
Will Lester covers politics and polls for The Associated Press.
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