LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., Dec. 10 -- Outgoing Democratic National Committee Chairman Terence R. McAuliffe said Friday that President Bush won reelection last month by skillfully leveraging terrorism and cultural issues to attract swing voters and even core Democrats, and he argued that his party must learn from Republican successes to become competitive.
McAuliffe spoke to state party leaders who have gathered near Walt Disney World to begin the process of selecting a new DNC chairman. The new chairman faces frustration among state leaders, who complain that the national party has neglected them, and a possible revolt from grass-roots activist groups such as MoveOn.org, which say they are determined to wrest control from corporate and Washington-based interests.
In one of his final acts as chairman, McAuliffe on Friday announced the makeup of a 40-member commission that will study and possibly revamp the calendar and rules governing the presidential nominating process in 2008. The commission's mandate is widely seen as a threat to the long-standing influence of Iowa and New Hampshire in selecting the party's nominees. Former labor secretary Alexis M. Herman and Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.) will serve as co-chairs.
McAuliffe's post-election assessment generally spared the Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), from direct criticism. But the DNC chairman offered a sobering analysis of the advances by the Republicans in developing and targeting their message, conceding that Bush and the GOP had outstripped anything Kerry and the Democratic Party were able to do.
McAuliffe noted that Democrats had raised more money than Republicans and put together the largest-ever operation to mobilize their voters, but had been less effective communicating with voters. Democrats focused their messages on voters in their own party and at swing voters, he said, while Bush and the GOP trumped that approach by going after Democrats as well as Republican and swing voters with their own targeted and well-tested messages.
"We had a very broad message . . .," he said. "The Republicans were much different. They were smart. They came into our neighborhoods. They came into Democratic areas with very specific targeted messages to take Democratic voters away from us."
McAuliffe said Republicans got a jump on the Democrats by testing and experimenting with communications strategies in 2001 and 2002 when the DNC was struggling to bring its technology up to date. Once that was completed, Democrats did some testing of themes, but McAuliffe said not enough. "Could we have done a lot more? You bet," he said.
Bush, he said, used terrorism to appeal to older married women and Democrats saw a decrease in their support among those voters. Bush appealed to churchgoing African Americans with messages about same-sex marriage and went after older Hispanics by focusing on terrorism and late-term abortions.
The GOP's inroads among Latinos were significant enough to trigger a warning to Democratic Party officials by leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who said there has been a "continuing pattern of neglect" of the nation's fastest-growing minority group by the party.
"Republicans have been committed, methodical and are clearly winning the battle for the Hispanic voters," caucus leaders wrote in a letter released Thursday. "If Democrats do not undertake a major paradigm shift in how they deal with Latino vote, the future of the party is in serious jeopardy."
The Hispanic caucus's warning came the same day that MoveOn's political action committee blasted the party's establishment and called on members to get involved in picking McAuliffe's successor.
Saying the Democrats "cannot afford four more years of leadership by a consulting class of professional losers," the e-mail said donations to Kerry and the Democrats by grass-roots activists provided a new model for the party. "Now it's our party," the message said. "We bought it, we own it and we're going to take it back."
The message was seen as a blast at those Democrats who oppose former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who is considering a run for party chairman. But Eli Pariser, executive director of the MoveOn PAC, said his group is not backing anyone for DNC chairman at this time.
"Our feeling is that there's a vacuum at the heart of the party and it's time to fill it with new energy, with people who have passion and who don't come from inside the Beltway," he said.
Democrats will pick a new chairman in February, with a number of prospective candidates, including Dean, scheduled to speak here Saturday. On Friday, New York businessman Leo J. Hindery Jr. announced that he was dropping out of a race that party leaders say is wide open.
The commission to study the presidential nominating calendar grew out of protests in the 2004 cycle, led by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), against the outsized role the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary play in choosing a nominee. The commission also will consider whether it would be better to stretch out the primaries and caucuses rather than front-loading the calendar. Other Democrats say they want a process that will do more to produce nominees who can compete throughout the country.
Price told reporters in a conference call there are no preconceptions about what, if any, changes should be made in the primary-caucus calendar. "The commission is not being appointed because we believe the process failed," he said.