As the Democrats began picking up the pieces yesterday after their latest defeat, many leaders focused on the need to re-engage their party with church-going and rural constituencies they acknowledge ignoring in the past.
The Democratic Party and allied groups waged an expensive and largely effective effort to increase the turnout of urban and minority voters, but Republicans trumped them by finding even more support among white voters outside the cities and inner-ring suburbs -- many of them people for whom religion is a central element.
That yielded a quickly emerging consensus yesterday across the Democrats' ideological spectrum that they "have to take the time to understand the concerns of rural families and Christian families," as Clinton White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta put it. "We cannot ignore the swath of red [Republican] states across the South and Midwest. The party of FDR has become the party of Michael Moore and [his film] 'Fahrenheit 9/11,' and it does not help us in big parts of the country."
Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D), easily reelected Tuesday by Arkansas voters even as her state went for George W. Bush for the second time, said, "People are faced with so many problems they cling to faith and prayers." She added: "I don't hesitate to stand up in a crowd and express how important faith is in my life. It is important to be able to express that in a way that is believable, and Democrats have to get comfortable doing that."
Unlike 2000, when many Democrats blamed Al Gore for losing an election to Bush that they expected to win, few of more than a dozen Democrats interviewed yesterday said Sen. John F. Kerry was personally responsible for the crushing loss.
"Kerry comes out of this well," said Simon Rosenberg, head of the New Democrat Network. "He took on a very tough enemy and fought very well. The other team just beat us, and we have to figure out why."
But several others said his Senate colleagues are unlikely to accept Kerry as the party spokesman when he returns to the chamber. His running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, is retiring this year and will have to create a platform for himself to remain a visible leader.
Sen. Harry M. Reid of Nevada, a soft-spoken Capitol Hill veteran, is poised to take over as minority leader from Sen. Thomas A. Daschle of South Dakota, a skilled television performer who was defeated for reelection. Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House minority leader, saw her party lose seats in its first test since she moved into that post. She leads a caucus shrunken in size and in its geographic range.
Losses in five Senate races in southern states, where the Democratic incumbents are retiring, and the decimation of a redistricted Texas Democratic House delegation cut more states and districts from their strongest personal links with the national party.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.), who decided yesterday not to challenge Reid for the Senate Democratic leadership, said it behooves Democrats to "think long and hard about what happened yesterday. We were on the right side on the issues . . . but we lost our ability to connect to people on values. We have to get that back."
Despite speculation that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) would become the center of news media attention as a possible 2008 Democratic presidential candidate, her colleagues seemed skeptical that she would seek to establish a more prominent role for herself before she faces reelection in New York in 2006.
"Were I her, I would not want to be thrust into that, and I think she will go to considerable lengths to avoid that," said Harold Ickes, a former Clinton White House aide and a strategist in her first Senate run.
Rather than search for a quick fix from a political celebrity such as Clinton, several Democrats suggested that the party tap the strength of its governors. Gerald W. McEntee, the head of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the director of AFL-CIO political operations, cited Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell as examples. "You have to reach out to the Vilsacks and Rendells and listen to what they know from being out there," McEntee said. "You can't just have the leadership in the House or Senate go to some retreat 50 miles away and think they will figure it out."
Time and again, Democrats' comments yesterday circled back to the need to restore the language of values to the party's rhetoric and to try to reconnect with people of faith.
Ickes, who helped run America Coming Together, a coalition of liberal interest groups that supplemented Democratic Party advertising and voter-mobilization efforts, said his organization "hit all our goals" in terms of increasing Democratic turnout in states such as Ohio. "But we did not take into account the increase in [the Republican] vote. They're reaching people we don't reach and talking to them in a different way."
Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), who is retiring this year, said exit polls showed the vulnerability. "Any time a party does better with non-church-going people than with church-going people, you've got a problem," he said. "That is why we've lost across the South."
Henry G. Cisneros, a Clinton administration secretary of housing and urban development, said Democrats managed to fend off Republican efforts to score a major breakthrough Tuesday in the rapidly expanding Latino vote, but still were damaged by some cultural and religious issues.
"When the Catholic bishops started talking about abortion and gay marriage, it was enough to matter in the Latino and ethnic Catholic neighborhoods. We said our position on gay marriage was only marginally different from Bush's, but that did not deal with it."
Initiatives to ban marriages between same-sex couples were on the ballots of 11 states, and all of them passed. The initiatives were credited by Republicans with drawing more of their voters to the polls.
Peter D. Hart, one of the Democrats' most respected pollsters, said that if the party is honest with itself, it will acknowledge that for all the improvement in its voter-mobilization efforts, "we came out on the short end again. It goes back to fundamentals. When 40 percent of the voters are regular church-goers and they go for Bush by 20 points, what don't you get?
"Bush," he noted, "brings it back again and again to faith. That word turns up over and over in his speeches. We have not been able to connect, as he has, with people's core values. Kerry did a very good job in the debates in talking about his values, but that was the only time." Reticent at the beginning of the campaign to discuss his Roman Catholic faith, Kerry became more open in his comments as time went on.
Because the kind of shift Hart and others advocate will not come easily to many Democrats, they are calling for a substantial period of reflection and discussion as the first step in the recovery of their party.
James Zogby, an Arab American political activist and a member of the executive committee of the Democratic National Committee, said Democrats have to ask themselves: "Why did we become a party of little causes and no vision? Why do we so cavalierly throw off the religious vote?"
This defeat, he said, creates "an extraordinary opportunity for us to have a serious discussion independent of ambitions for the 2008 nomination. But our party seems averse to discussing policy."