New Democratic chairman takes over a party in search of itself

``Happy days are here again . . .'' Remember those joyful words sung so often during the Democratic Party's halcyon years in Washington? Well, you don't hear them very often here any more. As the Democratic Party voted for its new chairman, Paul G. Kirk Jr., on Feb. 1, and looked ahead to the next four years, party leaders were singing another tune:

An ``arduous job'' lies ahead, said former Gov. Terry Sanford of North Carolina.

Southern voters ``feel left out'' of the party, said Gov. Martha Lane Collins of Kentucky.

The party must be ``more realistic'' and be ``fiscally conservative'' in its policies, said former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson.

The party must ``broaden the tent'' to include middle America, said Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona.

``After suffering four out of five defeats at the national level, a little Democratic candor may be food for our soul,'' said the newly-elected chairman, Mr. Kirk.

This burst of self-examination is no surprise. As President Reagan rides a wave of personal popularity and economic revival, Democrats worry that Republican success at the White House may spread to the state and local levels.

There are already tentative signs in that direction. A recent Garth Analysis study found that 36 percent of the American people say they lean toward the Republicans; only 33 percent toward the Democrats. This is especially surprising, since Democrats still hold a 42-to-29 percent edge in party registration.

A Gallup Poll showed Democrats still slightly ahead of Republicans in voter preference, but found a 10-point shift toward the GOP in only a year.

There were some who worried that bringing in a party chairman from Massachusetts, a man with close ties to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and to labor, would send the wrong message to the country.

A group of governors, led by Charles Robb of Virginia, and others, had originally looked for an alternative to Kirk. They couldn't find the ideal candidate, however, and eventually many of them joined a last-minute effort to give the chairmanship to Mr. Sanford.

Sanford, now president of Duke University, managed to pull together a sizeable following on the Democratic National Committee, but fell short with just over 40 percent of the vote.

Yet even his foes agree that Kirk is a competent, even-handed operative who has vowed to remain neutral in the next presidential race until after the Democratic nomination is locked up.

Kirk, who had been serving as the party's treasurer, dealt directly with concerns about his support from big labor. During the next four years, he said, special interest groups must realize that if they insist on 100 percent of their own agendas for the party, they may lose on every count because they have wanted too much. That includes labor unions, which have dominated Democratic politics in recent years.

One of Kirk's first steps, he said, would be to establish a Democratic policy institute. Its purpose would be to ``forge a national Democratic message.''

Many Democratic leaders agree with Kirk that if the party is to find its way out of its current problems, the key pathfinders will be elected officials from the states and Congress -- the men and women who have been winning elections at the same time the national party has been losing them. -- 30 --{et

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