Democrats Contour November Strategy

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 23, 2006

NEW ORLEANS, April 22 -- Democratic Party officials continue to assemble the pieces for their midterm election strategy, but questions about the party's overall message, differences on Iraq, reservations about their leaders, and debates about campaign tactics contribute to concerns that they may not be positioned to take advantage of the most favorable political climate since President Bush was elected.

The Democrats came to New Orleans this week to highlight what they want the midterm elections to be about: a referendum on Bush's leadership and competence. Just as Iraq symbolizes Americans' disenchantment with Bush's foreign policy, New Orleans stands as a poignant reminder of the breakdown of government after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Democrats intend to use that imagery as a partisan weapon between now and November to argue that Bush has failed the American people on multiple fronts.

"Our current Republican government will be judged by how they treated Americans of the Gulf Coast, and how it has treated, or mistreated, our American community," Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said in his speech to the committee on Saturday. "The Republicans have cut and run when it comes to rebuilding the Gulf Coast, and we will not do that."

On that there is widespread agreement, but many Democrats fear it will not be enough to win back control of the House or Senate or both in November. "We have to do two things," said Bobby Kahn, the Georgia Democratic Party chairman. "One, disqualify the Republicans, and two, provide an alternative. The first part, they've done for us, and the second part, we need to do."

The New Orleans meeting was infused with optimism. Democrats believe the elements that were crucial to Republican successes in 2002 and 2004 -- public fears about terrorism and positive perceptions of Bush's leadership capacities -- no longer have the potency to turn close elections in the GOP's direction. Overpowering those traditional Republican assets, they believe, is growing sentiment for a change in direction after six years of Republican dominance.

"In 2006, the veil of competency that they pretended to have, the illusion of security they ran on, is no longer there," said Robert Zimmerman, Democratic national committeeman from New York. "This is an election where the message is 'stand and deliver,' and they've not been able to stand and deliver."

But as powerful as that sentiment for change may be across the country, many Democrats see it as only one component of a winning campaign strategy. In their estimation, the message "Had enough?" is not enough to guarantee the kind of success in November that they believe is possible.

"I don't think we can coast through this election year by pointing out the shortcomings, which are multiple and gargantuan, of the Bush administration," said former DNC chairman Donald L. Fowler. "I don't think we can do that."

Fowler said the party needs policies on health care, tax reform, ethics and especially Iraq. In his speech Saturday, Dean sought to outline the elements of a Democratic message, adapted from what congressional Democrats have been assembling in recent months.

The proposals include raising the minimum wage, ensuring tax fairness for the middle class, rewriting the Medicare prescription drug plan, enacting recommendations from the commission that investigated the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, overhauling ethics and lobbying rules, and pushing the Iraqis to take greater responsibility for defeating the insurgency.

But Dean's litany falls short of what other Democrats see as a comprehensive alternative to Republican governance, and while many of them believe there is still time to produce something for public consumption before the November election, there is not overwhelming confidence that the party can do it. On Iraq, there is a sharp divide over whether to embrace or eschew timetables for withdrawing troops.

Democrats also remain haunted by the success of the Bush team to produce victories against the odds in recent elections. The GOP's skills at identifying and mobilizing voters in 2002 and 2004 have prompted major reassessments inside the Democratic family about how to respond, with splits between Dean's DNC and Washington-based Democratic strategists and congressional leaders over how to allocate resources.

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