WASHINGTON — IN New Hampshire this week, the Democratic Party turned right in its quest to pick a president.
Even if the Democrat that emerges ultimately loses next fall, many party leaders and strategists say the Democrats have turned a historic corner, away from decades of liberalism.
"This was Waterloo for traditional Democrats," says William Galston, a policy theorist, former issues director for the 1984 Walter Mondale campaign, and University of Maryland professor.
"What we're seeing at last is the birth of a Democratic Party that can be competitive in general elections," says Bruce Babbitt, former Arizona governor and a 1988 Democratic presidential candidate.
"It brought the party to the middle," says Stuart Eizenstat, a lawyer and former domestic policy adviser to President Carter.
New Hampshire split all its delegates between the two candidates with the most conservative economic message, former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the two major candidates advocating forceful government intervention on economic problems, could not have finished second even by pooling their vote totals.
The gist of the new Democratic message, says Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, is that economic growth matters more than redistributing wealth.
"You cannot have a liberal society that is open and tolerant for everybody with a shrinking economic pie," she says.
The dissolution of the socialist societies of Eastern Europe and the decline of left-wing parties all over the world in the past three years has offered what Ms. Kamarck calls a "reality shower" to left-wing Democrats.
With one of the most depressed local economies in the country, New Hampshire should have been primed for a classic populist, pro-government, New Deal-style message from a tough-talking Democrat. But Mr. Harkin - who fit that bill neatly - registered a poor fourth Tuesday with his liberal, pro-labor program.
"The single biggest surprise was a candidate articulating a [Great] Depression message in depression circumstances who didn't go anywhere," says Dr. Galston of Harkin's campaign.
Ron Zucker, program director at the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, which endorsed Harkin, is baffled at the candidate's failure to strike a chord. "People like me keep wandering around and saying, 'What's happened? Why isn't it working?
New Hampshire is no microcosm of the Democratic electorate. The state population is half rural and 98 percent white, and its Democrats are more conservative than most Democrats.
But New Hampshire Democrats also are a closer match to the national electorate than the liberals who predominate in most Democratic primaries. And Democrats, liberals included, are desperate to win after losing five of the past six presidential elections.
"I don't feel like losing again. I'm tired of it," says Mr. Zucker. d rather vote for Clinton, who I consider to be a Republican."
Much of New Hampshire's power this year was accidental. Usually the first sorting of candidates comes in Iowa caucuses, dominated by liberal activists. But this year a native son of Iowa, Senator Harkin, made Iowa a non-contest. Neither the candidates nor the news media spent any time there.
Now that the Democrats have turned a corner, the battle between Tsongas and Clinton will help define just which way the party heads now. Both are broadly conservative on economic issues and liberal on social issues, but there are marked differences.
Tsongas is most flatly pro-business. He opposes organized labor on its most cherished current goal: a bill barring companies from hiring permanent replacements for striking workers. He opposes middle-class tax cuts and favors modest capital-gains tax cuts to promote investment.
On the other hand, Tsongas regularly points out his strong endorsement of gay rights, and he advocates abortion rights.
Clinton presents a more mixed picture on all fronts. He favors both some shift of the current tax burden from the middle class to the affluent and some limited capital-gains tax cuts to promote business investment. He favors the striker-replacement ban.
Clinton tempers traditional liberal concern for rights with talk of social responsibility and welfare reform. He is pro-choice on abortion and opposes parental- consent requirements for pregnant teenagers, but favors parental notification. And he is for the death penalty.
Jeff Faux, president of the labor-oriented Economic Policy Institute, says that the turn to the right in New Hampshire is more of the same losing strategy the Democrats have tried since the Jimmy Carter presidency.
Democrats, he says, "lack confidence in their ideas."