Howard Dean's Democratic National Committee has been studying the electorate, and the party's problem with voters of faith is both worse and better than he feared.
The former Vermont governor, in one of his first actions as DNC chairman, commissioned pollster Cornell Belcher to survey voters in eight states: Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, New Mexico and Nevada. Bush won all of them except Wisconsin.
What Belcher found that worries the Democrats is that a significant percentage -- 47 percent of voters and 51 percent of white women in the eight states -- said their voting decisions are influenced as much or more by their religious faith as by traditional political issues. Not surprisingly, they went heavily for Bush over Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), with 66 percent backing the president.
But Belcher's survey also persuaded Dean and other DNC officials that these voters may not be beyond their reach. "These so-called values or faith voters are some of the most economically anxious voters in the electorate," Belcher said. "They're tremendously cross-pressured between their pocketbook concerns and their moral values concerns."
Dean believes that provides an opening for Democrats, but only if Democratic candidates learn to speak a different language. "Democrats wonder why people vote against their own economic interest," he said. "The answer is that Democrats don't connect with people's fears about how to raise their children in a difficult social environment."
The former presidential candidate said issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion are not the major obstacles facing Democrats, but the impression that Democrats convey to these voters is that their answer to those fears is more government. "The message people hear is, 'Oh, we'll raise your children for you.' That's the wrong message," Dean said.
Dean called the survey "the best poll I'd seen in 10 years," and said he hopes to road-test a message designed to reach enough voters in competitive red states to turn the tide. "If it works," he said, "the other folks in Washington will pick it up very quickly."
After the telephone interview, an aide to Dean called to say he wanted to make clear this was not a maverick enterprise on the chairman's part to create a new message, noting that he had spoken with Democratic congressional leaders and that all were working together on it.
These are not the best of times for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). The governor's approval ratings have been dropping, and his battle to revamp the state has run into some unexpected and embarrassing setbacks.
In one case, he was forced to retreat on his proposal to overhaul the state public employee pension system -- he wants to get rid of pensions for new workers and give them the equivalent of 401(k) accounts -- because of sloppy drafting of a proposed ballot initiative. And there are signs that he may back away from his call for merit pay for teachers.
The governor's situation has been compromised further by infighting among his advisers, which one GOP strategist said privately has resulted in a loss of focus in an operation that was highly praised in its early days.
Then, last week, Schwarzenegger came down with foot-in-mouth disease. Speaking to newspaper executives, the governor -- who is one of the country's most celebrated immigrants -- said the federal government should "close the border" between the United States and Mexico, because "it is just unfair to have all of those people coming across and have the border open the way it is."
Even before he had finished speaking, his press secretary, Margita Thompson, was trying to undo the damage, and the next day, as criticism mounted, the governor offered an apology, saying he was "sorry if I offended anyone." He explained, "I did not mean 'close.' I meant 'secure' our borders."
Schwarzenegger blamed the problem on his poor English, saying perhaps he needs to go back to school to study his adopted language.
Vermont Battle Takes Shape
The liberal group MoveOn.org wants to flex its muscles in the U.S. Senate seat that opened up last week when Vermont's James M. Jeffords (I) unexpectedly announced his retirement.
In an e-mail message, Vermont MoveOn members were asked to weigh in on whether the group should support Rep. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), who has said he will run and has the blessing of a number of Democratic leaders.
The message said he has been "a hero on many of MoveOn's issues" and argued that, if Sanders becomes the consensus progressive candidate and raises money quickly, "he could make Republican contenders think twice before jumping into the race."
Perhaps, but Republicans see an opportunity to pick off a seat in Vermont, and among those thinking of running is Gov. Jim Douglas, who has won two tough elections in a row and could frustrate Democratic hopes of winning.
Conservation isn't what it used to be.
"Not later than 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act, the President shall develop and implement measures to conserve petroleum in end-uses throughout the economy of the United States sufficient to reduce total demand for petroleum in the United States by 1,000,000 barrels per day from the amount projected for calendar year 2013."
-- Energy amendment
passed by the Senate,
99 to 1, June 10, 2003
"Not later than six months after the date of enactment of this act, appropriate Federal Departments and agencies, as identified by the president, shall propose voluntary, regulatory, and other actions sufficient to reduce demand for oil in the United States by at least 1.0 million barrels per day from projected demand for oil in 2013."
-- Energy amendment
defeated by the House,
262 to 166, April 20, 2005
Staff writer Dana Milbank contributed to this report.