Democrats gather in a mood of optimism

National committee seeks a plan, message to reverse GOP majority


NEW ORLEANS -- It is, by many accounts, a springtime for Democrats. President Bush's approval rating has gone down. Gas prices have gone up. And the burning desire for change in Washington, according to recent polls, remains one of the biggest worries for Republicans who control the government.

Yet for all the positive political signs for Democrats and for all the opportunities that could propel an out-of-power party back into the majority, Democratic leaders from across the country say it is premature to begin imagining a sweeping victory in the fall elections.

At the conclusion of the Democratic National Committee's spring meeting here yesterday, a feeling of fresh excitement was palpable in a party that has grudgingly grown accustomed to losing. Yet officials suggested that the road ahead for Democrats is not free of obstacles and that the party must not gloat over recent troubles for Republicans.

"We're obviously optimistic, but we're really focused and serious because we know how destructive the other side can be, and we know they won't hesitate to say anything," Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said in an interview. "They will do anything to stay in power, and we know that we have a tough fight ahead of us."

Those words of caution underscored the realities facing Democrats in the six months leading to the November elections. After winning two presidential campaigns and dominating congressional races for more than a decade, Republicans have amassed considerable tactical advantages that cannot be discounted as Democrats try to win 15 seats to take back the House and six to win control of the Senate.

A poll taken for the Pew Research Center last week showed that voters are angry at Congress -- beginning with its Republican leadership -- and at this stage are more inclined to vote for Democrats than for Republicans, by 51 percent to 41 percent.

"Even though people believe we need a change in leadership and a new direction, we will have to work hard to nationalize the election," said Ronnie Musgrove, former governor of Mississippi. "Our message has to be concise, specific and consistent. And we can always do better at that."

Indeed, Democrats have yet to settle on a unified theme to take on Republicans in the fall campaign. In conversations with party officials here, a wide variety of potential messages emerges, including overhauling the health care system, strengthening national security and reforming immigration laws.

"We are a party of change," Dean said in his address to Democrats. "They are a party of deficits, divisiveness and defeat."

But some party leaders say there is no rush for Democrats to lay out, point by point, how they intend to defeat Republicans if a credible message of change appears potent enough. A Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that 55 percent of registered voters -- even without a specific Democratic plan -- say they plan to vote for the Democratic candidate in their House district, compared with 40 percent who say they intend to vote Republican.

Defeating sitting members of Congress is difficult: a majority of seats are not truly competitive because district boundaries are drawn to protect incumbents. And in many regions of the country, Democrats struggled to recruit strong candidates because of a perception that Republicans could not be beaten.

"Recent polls say the American people would like to see Democrats in Congress, and I agree with those polls," New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said yesterday, addressing the closing session of the Democratic meeting. "But we are having a little problem finding the talent, finding a clear message and connecting with the people."

A better measure of the political mood, perhaps, could come through governors' races.

Penny Lee, executive director of the Democratic Governors' Association, delivered an upbeat briefing here about fall prospects. Of governors' races, Democrats have 13 incumbents up for re-election and one open seat -- in Iowa -- while Republicans have 14 incumbents on the ticket with eight open seats, including traditional Democratic strongholds New York and Massachusetts.

"There is no question that the environment probably couldn't be better for us nationally," Lee said. "It's amazing to see the president's numbers continue to fall in states that are as red as red can be."

Melissa Schroeder, who represents Wisconsin on the Democratic National Committee, said she could not remember the last time she witnessed so much excitement and hope among fellow Democrats. She said that stood in stark contrast to the mood two years ago after Bush won re-election and Republicans talked of building a lasting majority.

"Am I surprised at the downturn the Republican Party has taken? You bet I am," Schroeder said. "Could I have foreseen the demise? Not to the degree that it is."

Still, for all the grim news facing Republicans, other Democratic leaders said it was far too soon to be wholly optimistic about their chances in elections that are two seasons away, considering most voters are otherwise occupied with their lives, not politics.

Jeff Zeleny writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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