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Democrats Struggle To Seize Opportunity

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Others, including Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) -- who head the Senate and House campaign efforts -- believe the November election will turn mainly on how voters view Republicans. Schumer is leading the Democratic attack on the port deal, excoriating the administration for jeopardizing national security -- a realm in which Republicans have held the advantage with voters.

He and Emanuel have sought to delay the agenda's release to allow Democratic attacks to hold the stage with minimum distraction. "When you're in the opposition, you both propose and oppose," Emanuel said. "But fundamentally, this is going to be a referendum on [Republican] stewardship."

Also dividing Democratic strategists is the question of what lessons to take from the Republican landslide of 1994, when the GOP won the Senate and picked up 54 House seats, wiping out 40 years of Democratic rule. Some Democrats associate that breakthrough with the House Republicans' "Contract With America," a list of proposals on policy and government.

"We should take a page from their book" and have "an overarching theme" similar to the 1994 contract, said Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.).

Many of his colleagues agree, but not Reid. "We're not going to do a 'Contract With America,' " Reid said in an interview. He noted that the GOP document received scant attention when it was presented a few weeks before the 1994 election, and political historians say it played a minor role in the outcome. "There's a great mythology about the contract," Reid said.

Even the party's five-word 2006 motto has preoccupied congressional Democrats for months. "We had meetings where senators offered suggestions," Reid said. "We had focus groups. We worked hard on that. . . . It's a long, slow, arduous process."

That slogan -- "Together, America Can Do Better" -- was revived from the 2004 presidential campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry. It was the last line of Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's response to President Bush's State of the Union address, and Reid, Pelosi and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean have used it in speeches. But there is an effort afoot to drop the word "together." It tests well in focus groups and audiences, Democratic sources said, but it makes the syntax incorrect.

Governors privately scoff at the slogan. They also say the message coming from congressional leaders has been too relentlessly negative. "They want to coordinate. They want to collaborate. That's all good," said one Democratic governor who declined to be identified in order to talk candidly about a closed-door meeting. "The question is: Coordinate or collaborate on what? People need to know not just what we're against but what we're for. That's the kind of message the governors are interested in developing at the national level."

Reid spokesman Jim Manley said congressional Democrats have spent the past year redefining the debates over terrorism and Iraq and have prepared the ground for a shift to a more positive message that will focus on energy, health care and homeland security, all areas in which the governors would concur, he predicted. "We've had an unprecedented level of cooperation," he said.

Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly added: "At the end of the day, I think everyone will be on board."

Perhaps the Democrats' greatest dilemma is how to respond to the Iraq war. It looms as the biggest question mark over Bush's administration and the Republican lawmakers who have backed him on the conflict almost without question.

Congressional Democrats have been split over the war since 2002, when many voted to authorize military action. The ground shifted last November when Rep. John P. Murtha (Pa.), a leading Democratic voice on military matters, called for U.S. troops to be withdrawn as soon as possible. Two weeks later, Pelosi endorsed his stance.

Although Pelosi said she was not speaking for her caucus, some colleagues complained that she was handing Republicans a gift by enabling them to tag Democrats as soft on terrorism and forcing Democratic candidates to explain whether they agreed with their House leader.

There is little question that the political landscape looks promising for Democrats. A Feb. 9 poll by the Pew Research Center found that Democrats lead Republicans 50 to 41 percent in a generic ballot.

But congressional Democrats have some key deficiencies. For instance, they lack the hard-charging, charismatic figurehead that Gingrich represented for the House GOP in 1994. But the Democrats have an abundance of presidential hopefuls, and their agendas sometimes differ from those of Reid, Schumer, Pelosi and Emanuel.

For instance, Sen. Russell Feingold (Wis.) tried to filibuster the renewal of the USA Patriot Act, a move opposed by most of his Senate colleagues, including Reid. Kerry (Mass.) led an unsuccessful filibuster attempt against Samuel A. Alito Jr.'s confirmation as a Supreme Court justice. The best-known Democrat is Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), whose plans for a 2008 presidential bid leave many of her colleagues wary of how her famous but divisive presence might affect them.

"There are lots of skeptics," Schumer conceded. But the polls look better and better, he stressed. "There may be some inside-the-Beltway babble, but it's not affecting the voters," said Schumer, who wants the agenda delayed again -- until summer.

Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report.


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