Ten days ago, as the Democrats' defeat in the election sank in, a comment that Al Gore made in a speech last June resonated through their cries of despair. The former vice president was talking about his failed 2000 presidential campaign: There had been too many consultants involved in his campaign, Gore told a private gathering of major donors, there had been too much emphasis on polls and tactics. "If I had to do it over again," he said, "I'd just let it rip."

Cynics will say that Gore was just a defeated candidate blowing off steam; that if he does run in 2004, he will once again surround himself with pollsters and tacticians. But the reason those words come to mind is that Gore -- still trying to figure out why he hadn't prevailed, still floundering for answers just as his party is now -- pointed toward a failure that reaches far beyond one man's clumsy bid for the White House.

The problem wasn't that Gore had handlers. The problem was the message -- or lack of one -- that those handlers were telling him to put out, and that he didn't have a clear message of his own. And that's just what brought down the Democrats again earlier this month. As Ed Rendell, the new governor of Pennsylvania and one of the few Democrats to win big, put it: "People failed to craft a message. The president's doing a great job on the war effort, but we got afraid of everything." Ann Richards, former governor of Texas, agrees: "We had no message, no message at all." The challenge the Democrats now face, as they try to regain strength and influence before the 2004 elections, is to get past the moral relativism that came to typify the Clinton era. They need to let it rip.

That's because what really happened on Nov. 5 was that Bush (and all that he stands for) beat Clinton (and all that he doesn't stand for). It was a rare sight to see a president and an ex-president going head to head in a midterm election. "Bush conveys the sense that he believes in something," says author and journalist William Greider. "I don't see how the Democrats can get clear of Clinton. Only if they get a strong nominee, they might to able to change things."

Listen to leading Democrats and it's clear that they now recognize the need to rid themselves of Clinton's baggage -- starting with the former president's proxy, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. Unless they do so, voters will continue to look at the party with a jaundiced eye, convinced that Democrats have lost the high ground. They have lost their perceived position as the morally superior party; they have lost their role as the champion of the little guy; they have lost their identity, much as Gore lost his.

Think about it: The Republicans have always been seen as the ones who made the trains run on time. They have been the organized ones, the big money guys, the corporate guys (and mostly guys), who showed the Democrats up for their chaotic, scattershot approach to strategy and fundraising. The negative stereotype of the GOP has been of a party that is hardhearted, often narrow-minded, even ruthless. They were the end-justifies-the-means crowd. The Dems, by contrast, cast themselves as the party with the big hearts, the integrity, the inclusiveness, the compassion. They were the we-may-lose-but-we'll-still-be-able-to-look-at-ourselves-in-the-mirror crowd.

Bill Clinton ended all that. He promoted the notion that morals didn't matter. Winning mattered. The Democrats were so eager for a big win they decided to play by Clinton's rules, and for a while it worked: Clinton out-Republicaned the Republicans; he won two elections. But his Monica antics put Gore, his natural successor, in an impossible position, unable to run with him and unable to run without him. Clinton also cemented the perception of the Dems as a win-at-any-costs party by installing McAuliffe as head of the DNC. George W. Bush is one of Clinton's legacies. But the more worrying legacy, from the Democrats' point of view, is McAuliffe.

Because of the lack of leadership, it was McAuliffe, Fundraiser in Chief, who became the face of the party. As Richards says, "Terry walked into a large hole in the TV schedule. Nobody was carrying the banner." He embodied the belief that nothing matters except winning. And then the Democrats started losing, including most of the candidates -- including Democratic gubernatorial candidates Kathleen Kennedy Townsend of Maryland and Bill McBride of Florida -- for whom Bill Clinton campaigned. Sure, the election result was about the war on terrorism and Iraq and patriotism and the tax cuts to some degree. But mostly it was about the Democrats not being what they once said they were.

Which is why so many Democrats today will tell you, mostly privately, what they think about McAuliffe.

"Terry McAuliffe has to go," said one prominent Democrat close to the Clintons.

"Most people feel that way but nobody will tell you that on the record," added a very visible Democratic congressman who is active in party fundraising.

Toni Goodale, a longtime Democratic political fundraiser in New York, is not so reticent: "We need strong moral leadership in the party. We need maturity, diplomacy, a great articulate spokesman for the Democrats. . . . [McAuliffe] comes across as smug, too aggressive, too competitive, offensive." According to Goodale, McAuliffe "knows only one kind of fundraising, the old-line, soft-money kind through special interests. That's over . . . . Hard money is the wave of the future. He has weaknesses in all areas. It's time for a change."

Not every prominent Democrat blames McAuliffe. "Unfortunately, people thought that Terry should have been the message bearer," says Richards. "I disagree. He did what he should have done. Raise money. I don't want Terry McAuliffe to be the messenger. I want the person running for office. But somebody had to fill the void."

Hollywood television producer Norman Lear, founder of the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way, similarly deplores the fact that there is no leadership in the Democratic Party today. He goes even further to say, "There isn't a Democratic Party. There are two parties, the hard-line Republicans and the moderate Republicans -- and the moderate Republicans call themselves Democrats."

Though Lear doesn't blame McAuliffe, he does say, "I haven't talked to anyone who gives money here who doesn't take it for granted that he's gone. He's gone because he was dead wrong. . . . He made all the wrong choices." Lear says McAuliffe was not concentrating on the fact that the Democrats were about to lose both houses of Congress, "and if they won the Senate, the Republicans would control three branches of government and the Supreme Court." The Republicans, he says, "did everything right. The Democrats did everything wrong. The Republicans earned an A-plus, the Democrats a D-minus."

The lack of Democratic leadership, according to Lear, was painfully clear at the memorial event for Sen. Paul Wellstone, shortly before the election. Although Lear says that the memorial was "a celebration of a man's values and politics and passion, there was no question there was bad behavior . . . and there wasn't a Democratic leader who stood up and said so."

"They are wilted," Lear states. "They are wilted Democrats."

The Republicans took full advantage of that failing. Bush strategist and former Democrat Mark McKinnon says, "The Democrats managed to claw their way to the bottom. What was obvious to a lot of us is that the last election was about character. . . . This election was about character and integrity. The Clinton people were out of touch. They thought it was about the economy. It was about sustained moral compass. It was about trust.

"If they keep thinking they're going to roll out Clinton," continues McKinnon, "look what happens. And with Terry McAuliffe, you can't beat somethin' with nothin'."

The election was, in a sense then, a rejection of the Clintonian way of politics. Marty Kaplan, former Mondale speechwriter and now associate dean of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication, says: "By rejecting Clinton, the voters are not just rejecting his personal life, they're rejecting the unprincipled positions." As for McAuliffe, Kaplan continues, "Terry stands for money and he stands for Clinton."

And standing for money is the last thing the look-at-yourself-in-the-mirror party can afford to do. As former New York congressman and Gore adviser Tom Downey, who is now in private business, says, "It's our biggest problem, how we raise money. We've corporatized the party, and it's eaten away at our soul."

All of which is why, when Democratic operatives today talk about their dream candidate, they look to Republican Sen. John McCain -- someone who is not afraid to make a moral stand. They know that Bush and the Republicans will roll the Democrats again and again until the Democrats finally convey the sense that they really believe in something. Prominent members of the party are acknowledging the breadth of the problem that Gore mentioned last summer: that if the Democrats are going to stage a comeback, they have to find candidates, not consultants and fundraisers, who will let it rip. The question remains, where?

Sally Quinn, a Washington Post staff writer, has been writing about politics in Washington since Lyndon Johnson's presidency.