Al From and Bruce Reed

The controversy over the role presidential adviser Karl Rove played in naming a covert Central Intelligence Agency operative could help focus voters' attention on how Washington is run.

But Democrats need to be careful not to focus too much on hounding Mr. Rove at a time when voters know too little about what their own party stands for. If Democrats are smart, they also will avoid copying Rove's strategy of polarization, using controversial issues to whip up support from a loyal base of voters.

So say executives of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), a group of centrist Democrats founded to reconnect their party with "mainstream values and aspirations." Several hundred politicians affiliated with the DLC will meet next Monday in Columbus, Ohio, to plot strategies for a Democratic comeback in Congress and the White House.

"This controversy over Karl Rove probably just reinforces a lot of concerns in this country about the way Washington is run and about the arrogance of power in Washington," Al From, the DLC's chief executive officer, said at a Monitor breakfast Tuesday. "I think the way the Republicans have run the city, which they control, will be an important political issue."

The decisive role a federal prosecutor will play is another reason for political caution. "The most important thing to keep in mind about the Rove affair is that the justice system will have the most important say in this.... This will come to a real conclusion that can't be spun," says Bruce Reed, the DLC's president and a former top adviser to President Clinton.

The half-life of a Washington imbroglio can be brief. At this writing, President Bush is expected to reveal shortly his candidate to replace Sandra Day O'Connor as an associate justice of the US Supreme Court. That announcement would reduce media attention about whether anyone in the Bush administration violated the law in discussing CIA operative Valerie Plame with reporters. "You can get obsessed by the day-to-day political banter in Washington and lose sight of the larger purpose of a political party, which is to provide political leadership to the country," Mr. From warned.

Before a party can lead, voters must find its agenda appealing. "Ideas and values are the only thing that matters," Mr. Reed says. And with Republicans in control of both the White House and Congress, "The American people have very little idea what Democrats stand for and very little idea of what we would do."

Still, Reed says he is optimistic about Democrats' chances for retaking the White House. "It is an open seat; George Bush will be gone," he said.

In seeking to deal with a GOP White House, "It is a shame some Democrats have bought into the Rove strategy," Reed says. "Karl Rove's view is that polarization is the best approach for Republican.... And some Democrats felt the same way - that stoking the partisan fires and disagreeing with everything the Republicans did just because George Bush was involved was going to be good for us."

The DLC leaders noted that since the 1970s , more voters have identified themselves as conservatives than liberals. Thus polarization may work for Republicans but not for Democrats. "Our challenge is not to unify as a minority but to expand to a majority," From said.

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