The Association of Democratic State Chairs showed a flair for political imagery when it decided to hold its midwinter meeting at a futuristic resort smack in the middle of Walt Disney World.
The Democrats are a party slouching toward Tomorrowland. One year after their 49-state drubbing, party activists are beginning to work out new ways to appeal to a more youthful electorate -- an electorate they're now ready to admit they badly misread in 1984.
They're also feeling better about their political prospects than theywould have expected just a few months ago, and they've acquired an aversion to just about anything or anyone associated with their past.
Most state party chairmen who gathered here this weekend, in separate interviews, expressed deep skepticism about the presidential prospects of the candidate who is likely to lead in all of the party's polls between now and the start of the 1988 nominating season -- Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
"He is a voice from the past," said Wade Smith, chairman of the North Carolina Democratic party. "People hear his name and I don't think they get angry or mad. They just say to themselves, 'Same song, fourth or fifth stanza.' "
Inside the Beltway, Kennedy set off sparks this year with votes in support of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings amendment and the line-item presidential veto. But among state chairmen, the recasting of the Kennedy image into one of fiscal moderation appears barely to have made a dent -- and unlikley to win many converts if and when it does.
"Of all the people in the country, he's going to have the hardest time convincing people he's not a traditional liberal," said Richard Lodge, party chairman in Tennessee. "He's too much of a known commodity," added James Ruvolo of Ohio.
Kennedy dispatched one of his top political lieutenants, William Carrick, to this meeting, as he does to virtually all sizable party gatherings these days. Carrick is a low-key, highly regarded South Carolinian who says his boss isn't out to prove he's no liberal, merely that he's he no ideologue.
He also argues that skeptics overlook a key point about Kennedy: He projects a sense of strong leadership, which is precisely the quality that younger voters found so lacking in the Democratic Party.
The young voters dominated the discussion agenda of the state chairmen here this weekend. By 1988, all of the 75 million members of the baby boom generation (people born between 1946 and 1964) will be in the voting population, and will make up close to half of it.
In 1984, for the first time in a generation, the Democrats did no better with young voters than they did with the electorate as a whole.
But a poll of 5,500 persons by the Democratic National Committee this fall and released in summary form this weekend showed that, by overwhelming margins, young voters do yearn for strong leadership from the Democrats.
But Democrats now say they think their message to young voters has been all wrong. DNC Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. acknowledged a "hint" of accusation in the Democratic campaign last year -- accusations that the young had turned conservative out of selfishness and lack of compassion.
In fact, he said, young families feel great economic anxiety, triggered by job losses because of structural changes in the economy, stagnating real wages and $200 billion annual budget deficits.
The party has begun running radio messages that go to the heart of those economic concerns. These appeals stem from the belief, backed by Democratic polling, that voters are ready to talk about government positively again; that the era of get-the-government-off-our-back has passed. That is part of the reason for the party's new and tentative optimism. The other part is their opposition.
Kirk said the GOP is undercutting itself by letting the hard right put Republican presidential candidates through "litmus tests."
And Richard Wiener, Michigan state chairman, thinks the budget reduction drive even if led by Republicans, will hurt the GOP. "They're in a political Catch-22," he said, "because the more they focus on the deficit, the more they remind voters they promised to balance the budget by now. I think they have a real credibility problem."