As Democratic state chairmen and national committee members gathered here for a round of meetings last Wednesday morning, the Republican National Committee announced that Ronald Reagan's pollster had just handed over data showing "the Republican Party is on the verge of majority-party status for the first time in generations."
That afternoon, for the first time in 40 years, tornadoes -- nine in all -- struck the Denver area, sending the assembled Democrats scuttling for safety in their hotel. It seemed, even to skeptics, a kind of symbolic message.
The survey taken by Reagan pollster Richard Wirthlin in mid-May showed that 39 percent of the voters called themselves Republicans, 40 percent Democrats and 21 percent independents. That was a 10-point drop in the number of self-identified Democrats and an 11-point gain for the Republicans since the spring of 1980 -- clear evidence of a political tornado threatening to uproot the Democrats' half-century status as the dominant party in the country.
The real-life tornadoes missed the Hilton Hotel where the Democrats were gathered. And by the time the meetings ended Friday, the same scared Democrats were on their feet, cheering the rejection of President Reagan's nominee to run the State Department's human rights policy started by the last Democratic administration.
When party chairman Charles T. Manatt brought the Democrats up shouting with the announcement of the 13-to-4 Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote against Ernest W. Lefver, it was more than the prelude to the forced withdrawal of the first Reagan nominee to fail Senate scrutiny. It was proof to some Democrats that what Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) that morning had called the "extremism and rigid ideology" of the renascent Republicans would soon bring the country to its senses and the Democrats back to power.
Much of the confusion in the Democratic Party these days stems from its leaders' inability to decide whether to head for the storm shelter or shout their defiance to the political winds. That ambivalence showed in a recent CBS News poll, which asked 324 of the 369 state chairmen and national committee members about Democratic prospects in the 1982 midterm elections. Asked about House races in their own state, 46 percent said Democratic candidates will do better than they did in 1980 and 46 percent said they will do the same or worse.
Other survey answers showed a bit more optimism. Fifty-nine percent said they thought the Democrats would do better nationwide in 1982. And when asked what they thought about surveys like Wirthlin's 77 percent said they think the Democrats will halt the GOP surge or recoup their lost ground.
But conversations with many of the Democrats here indicate that optimism is thin. Judge Wiley Hickman of Gadsden, Ala., a veteran national committee member from a brass-collar Democratic county, said, "If these folks get the economy humming again, they're going to stay in power a long time, just like we did."
The Democrats uncertainty about their own condition and prospects spills over into their discussions about how to prepare for an expected all-out GOP drive to capture majorities in the House of Representatives and the governors' offices in 1982. About one-sixth of those polled by CBS said, in effect, that there's no problem because "the Republicans will damage themselves." Even those who thought the Democrats might have to think of something were evenly divided in their counsel. About 10 percent of this group said the Democrats should change their issues or ideology, but just as many said they should put more stress on "traditional issues."
In a much-applauded keynote speech that marked his debut before a national Democratic audience, Hart -- one of the few liberal senators to survive a reelection test in 1980 -- did what smart politicians always do. He agreed with everyone in the room. Relying on his own instincts, rather than the CBS data, he said in one part of the speech that the Republicans will self-destruct, in another part that the Democrats will have to retune their rhetoric, and in a third part that the old-time religion is still true.
He assured the scaredy-cats in the crowd that Reagan's "blank-check defense policy" and "dismantling of the social policies of the last 50 years . . . does not represent the mainstream of America," and will soon be repudiated by the voters. He told the revisionists that "in defense, in energy, in the economy, the Democratic Party of the future must be the party of new solutions to new problems." And he told the traditionalists, "If we abandon our principles in 1981 and, in an effort to achieve some short-term political gain, we become like the Republicans, the American people will in turn abandon us."
By the time he finished, he had added his name pretty clearly to the list of 1984 presidential hopefuls -- which is probably what he wanted to do.
But the Democrats who met here are less worried about 1984 than about the 1982 midterm election, and dozens of conversations confirmed the CBS poll finding that they believe the most important step they can take to head off the Republicans is "better organization."
Manatt, who has spent most of his time fund-raising since his election as chairman of the financially strapped party last February, tried to create an impression of a powerful political machine being built -- even though the state and local organization people gathered here know better than most that the claims are premature if not fraudulent.
Manatt produced the first issue of a slick-paper, two-color, eight-page newspaper called "Democrats Today" especially for the meeting, and used the lead article to proclaim, "The Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee are alive, well and building for the 1981 and 1982 elections." But budget constraints will delay publication of the second issue at least until fall.
Manatt announced that Washington political consultant Matt Reese has been hired to produce organization workbooks and run training programs for state parties and their workers. But the initial contract with Reese is for $30,000 -- a pittance in this day of multimillion-dollar campaigns. He introduced a three-member staff of headquarters employes, available to help Democrats in the vital task of redrawing legislative and congressional district boundaries. But any funds for matching the Republicans' computer-aided redistricting schemes will have to be raised locally, because the national committee will be hard-pressed to meet its payroll during the slow summer months of fund-raising.
The Democrats left Denver with an acute awareness that if the Republican tornado in fact touchs down in 1982, the roof and walls of the shaky Democratic organization structure will not be able to withstand it. Their best hope is that the Republicans will hand them the election the same way they handed them Ernest Lefever.