Democrats struggle to find a message to trump GOP

War on terror gives the GOP a strong issue, while Democrats can't even make gains on the economy.

Democrats might be forgiven for feeling somewhat dispirited these days. Five months ago, they were in a strong position to take back the House. They had history on their side, since the party out of the White House almost always gains seats in midterm elections. They even had a recession working in their favor.

But ever since Sept. 11, President Bush's approval ratings have soared, and the nation has been preoccupied with the war on terror - an issue that tends to favor Republicans. Moreover, many polls now show the GOP also has an edge on handling the economy and is gaining on traditionally Democratic issues, such as healthcare and protecting Social Security.

As a result, Democrats are scrambling to find something that will work. The only issues they've tried to capitalize on so far - the budget deficit and Enron - are ones where their own credibility is shaky and could prove difficult cases to make.

While it's true that individual candidates can succeed without a strong national issue - because local issues often predominate in congressional elections - the lack of one could make it that much harder for the party to prevail in competitive districts.

"The problem is, in many of these places you need a nudge to get you over the top," says Amy Walter, an analyst for the Cook Political Report. "If it comes down to hand-to-hand combat ... it means Democrats can't afford to make any mistakes in these districts."

Democratic leaders still see several factors working in their favor. For one thing, redistricting, the redrawing of congressional boundaries that was expected to favor the GOP, now looks as if it will be more even, or result in only a few GOP gains. Although the process is not complete, many state legislatures are being cautious, opting to protect incumbents rather than push for big gains.

Democrats also argue the lack of a national message doesn't matter - and can even be helpful: Candidates in competitive districts often find the party line on certain issues doesn't sit well with constituents. Except for the 1994 election, when Republicans across the US campaigned on the Contract with America, most recent midterms have pivoted on local issues.

"I think we have a very good chance of taking the House back," says Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "But it is important that candidates not try and run on a national message - that they run on the issues that are important in their district."

The trouble is, Republicans are emphasizing a national message - the war on terror - and so far they've succeeded in keeping it central. While Bush adviser Karl Rove was criticized for saying his party could reap advantage from the war, analysts agree it works in the GOP's favor: The party has long had an edge on foreign policy, and it shifts the focus away from issues Democrats want to campaign on.

"As long as the nation continues to focus on foreign policy and the war, the Republicans have a leg up," says Gary Jacobson of the University of California at San Diego. "That detracts from the kinds of things Democrats want to talk about."

Much will depend on what happens with the economy in the next 10 months. While signs indicate the recession may be ending, it can take a long time before that translates into new jobs. Significantly, many competitive districts this year are in areas hard hit by the recession - rural areas and places dependent on tourism, such as a new seat in suburban Las Vegas.

But Democrats have struggled to sell voters on their economic policies. Recent polls show that more voters choose Republicans as the party most likely to improve the economy. Likewise, most voters don't see the president's tax cut as bad, though, according to a Los Angeles Times Poll, two-thirds would rather repeal it than dip into Social Security surpluses.

Enron presents a similarly tricky problem for Democrats. In a recent memo, Democratic strategists James Carville, Stanley Greenberg, and Bob Shrum wrote that "Enron has the potential to shape the entire political environment for 2002, impact other issues, and reduce confidence in the Bush administration and Republicans."

Already, Democrats are trying to tie Republicans to the debacle. In North Carolina, the party is running ads saying that GOP Senate candidate Elizabeth Dole let former Enron chief Kenneth Lay hold a fundraiser for her just nine days after the terrorist attacks, despite her claim that she had suspended all campaign activities.

Still, while voters link Republicans more closely with Enron than Democrats, little evidence suggests it will affect their vote. "Do they think Bush is too cozy with business? Sure," says Ms. Walter. "Do they think that's a reason to vote out Republican members of Congress? No."

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