Democrats ponder lessons of defeat

The electorate is still closely split, but Bush factor strong.

As demoralized Democrats struggle to come to terms with their losses, and begin looking ahead to the

2004 campaign, the challenge they face can be boiled down to two key points:

• In a post-Sept. 11 environment, President Bush's popularity is a powerful asset to his party, capable of energizing GOP voters and pushing Republican candidates to victory in close states.

• Aligning themselves with Mr. Bush doesn't do Democrats much good.

In the aftermath of the Republicans' historic sweep of both chambers of Congress, Democratic strategists are quick to point out that their defeat was greater in symbolic terms than numeric, with the margins of power still quite narrow.

And, they add, they were always facing an uphill situation. Not only did redistricting vastly limit the number of House seats the party could compete for, but also nine of the 10 closest Senate races were in states Bush won in 2000 – forcing Democrats to run closer to Bush than they might have otherwise.

But for many Democrats, the primary lesson to take from Campaign 2002 may be that, despite Bush's high approval ratings, they will have to find a way to present voters with a clear alternative if they have any hopes of recapturing the White House in 2004.

"I think many people are going to wake up and say, we can't just be a slightly grayer version of Bush and win," says John Podesta, Bill Clinton's former chief of staff.

Still, if Bush's popularity continues to hold, it will present Democrats with a severe challenge, as many analysts attribute the GOP's success in these elections largely to the president.

"There clearly was a late Republican surge in many states," says Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg. She attributes this to the record amounts of money Bush was able to raise for GOP candidates, as well as to the cash poured in by interest groups. But it's also a result of the president's visits: "The president himself clearly had an impact – going in late to places like Colorado, Missouri," she says.

Others argue that Democrats' losses were more the result of a few poorly run campaigns and the fact that the political map never was as competitive as some polls may have indicated. "We were playing on pretty Republican turf," says one Democratic strategist. "I mean, we were trying to win a [Senate] seat in Texas."

Economic message didn't get through

Analysts agree that Democrats' biggest failure was their inability to use the poor economy against Bush and his party.

To some extent, this was not their fault: throughout much of the fall, Democratic leaders tried to turn the public's attention to economic matters only to find their message drowned out by the debate over a war with Iraq, or by other external events such as the Washington area sniper attacks. Yet many add that the party also failed to provide voters with a clear-cut economic alternative.

"Basically, they were not able to take advantage of the economy as an issue," says independent pollster John Zogby. "Part of it was that, throughout much of October, attention was diverted away from the economy. But the other part of it was they didn't have a plan."

On the other hand, Democrats argue that they were severely hampered by geography, since many of the tightest Senate races were in right--leaning states where Bush's tax cut was popular.

"If Democrats had really taken on Bush on the tax cut, do we really think that would have won the day in North Carolina or Colorado, or that [Georgia Sen.] Max Cleland would have been better off?" scoffs one Democratic strategist. "I don't think that's the case."

Moreover, while many Democrats agree they need to present a clearer economic contrast in 2004, some point out that this could be an even more difficult task now that the party has lost control of the Senate – and the ability to set an agenda in Washington. "Obviously, there was more of an opportunity when Democrats held the Senate to offer that [economic] alternative," says Ms. Greenberg. "That's much tougher now."

On Iraq, a missed opportunity?

Some analysts also believe Democrats squandered an opportunity to use the war on Iraq as a "wedge" issue to create a contrast with Bush. Democrats could have argued, "It's war and peace – if you want peace, vote for us," says Mr. Zogby.

The one Democratic leader who clearly did make that argument – Al Gore – might see his prospects rise as a result. Indeed, among Democratic hopefuls for 2004, Mr. Gore has taken a stronger stand than most on questioning Bush's Iraq stance. But Gore also didn't prove to be very helpful on the stump – since several of the candidates he campaigned for lost. Likewise, congressional leaders such as Rep. Richard Gephardt or Sen. Tom Daschle may see their presidential chances hurt by their inability to help their party win seat.

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