NThe Democratic National Committee has minted a catchy new phrase for some of its most faithful voters: merlot Democrats.

The phrase is intended to encompass Democratic voters who are affluent and secular in their cultural values, and not particularly anxious about "pocketbook" issues. A rather high percentage of these liberals apparently are oenophiles.

DNC Chairman Howard Dean has relied on the merlot description several times recently as he travels about the nation talking to Democrats. In mid-September, Dean spoke to some deep-pocketed Democrats from the island of Manhattan. Afterward, a Democrat wrote a memo sharing highlights from Dean's talk.

"The DNC has identified four critical segments of the U.S. electorate," this attendee wrote. "1. Merlot Democrats: We are the base."

Dean mentioned three other categories in this talk: "Patriotic Democrats," who often leave the party because of the Republican emphasis on moral values and the war on terrorism; "Regular Republicans," which is the other party's base; and "Backlash Republicans" who are troubled by the direction of the country and would, perhaps, vote Democratic.

No mention was made of other political subsets, such as "Dewar's Libertarians" and "Organic Syrah Greens."

Pollsters are much enraptured these days by catchy demographic categories. But some skeptics say choosing a French grape to describe the base of a party that has lost two straight presidential elections in part because of problems competing in middle America may lack a certain populist je ne sais quoi (meaning "I don't know what," for the French-impaired).

"Identifying with a French red grape is indicative of being out of touch with America," said Mitchell Moss, a professor at New York University who has advised both Republicans and Democrats. "At least pick something more American, like 'Gallo Hearty Burgundy Democrats.' "

Mention such criticism to the man who coined the phrase, DNC pollster Cornell Belcher, and he waves a yellow flag of caution. He said he never intended the merlot designation to apply exclusively to high-end Democrats.

"Merlot is something I made up late one night," Belcher said. "I don't want to get too caught up in the cuteness of the name."

Belcher said the point of his analysis was to examine how the Democrats could better appeal to a different, key group of voters: so-called faith-based Americans who make up a majority of the electorate. "A large segment of Americans are faith voters, who make sense of a great deal of their lives through the prism of religion," Belcher said.

As for merlot lovers? Belcher found that one-third possess postgraduate degrees and they rate concern about the federal deficit as a top-three issue. And perhaps like the grape itself, they tend to mature faster and are softer in texture (as described by www.cellarnotes.net).

Carter Flashback a Bad Trip

Jack Carter, the oldest son of former president Jimmy Carter, announced a couple of weeks ago that he will run for the Senate from Nevada. But already the novice candidate has learned a lesson about how politics tends to bring events from the past galloping into the present.

In recent days, Carter has found himself answering questions about his youthful use of marijuana and LSD, as well as a less than honorable discharge from the military.

Some analysts said Democrat Carter's experimentation with what in the early 1970s were often called mind-expanding drugs is likely to have vote-contracting consequences more than three decades later.

"Nevada's a pretty libertarian state on social issues, but that's one where I just have a feeling the voters would just say no," said Eric Herzik, professor of political science at the University of Nevada at Reno. "Even though it happened more than 30 years ago, [LSD is] one of those drugs that immediately people will almost, like, run and lock the door."

Carter told reporters on Oct. 4 that he plans to challenge Nevada Sen. John Ensign (R) in 2006, saying he was "disgusted" by the direction the Republican leadership has taken the country.

Last week, a Las Vegas blogger posted links to a 2003 oral history interview with Carter at the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum and a description of a 1977 ABC News interview with Barbara Walters. In both, Carter discussed receiving a general discharge from the U.S. Navy after he admitted drug use.

Carter served one tour in Vietnam and was attending nuclear power school in Idaho when the Navy organized a drug bust in 1970, he told the oral history interviewer.

"Some people had said that I had actually smoked marijuana with them. And when they came to ask me if that were true, I said that it was. Because it was," he said. "And also, threw in that I had had a couple of LSD tablets and some THC, just to make sure that . . . if I was on the borderline, to make sure I got out."

A businessman with little political experience, Carter moved to Nevada in 2002 from Bermuda. He and his wife run Carter Global, an investment-consulting firm, from their Las Vegas condo.

DNC Chairman Howard Dean may want to rethink the French label.