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Democrats Search for Ways to Connect with Voters


In the wake of President George W. Bush's election victory, many Republicans and political conservatives are predicting years of dominance over rival Democrats, struggling to recover from their losses.

For Democrats, the defeat of John Kerry, and the strengthening of the Republican majority in Congress, have triggered the most intense period of reflection in decades.

Leave it to the architect of an ambitious plan in the mid-1990s to return Republicans to the political ascendancy, to come up with perhaps the clearest statement of the impact of victories over Democrats on November 2.

Former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich, continues to point to his Contract with America, a proposal to build on what was called the revolution of conservative values in the 1980s under former President Ronald Reagan, as the beginning of a return to dominance over rival Democrats.

He describes President George W. Bush's re-election as nothing less than the beginning of the latest stage of a war that could lead to Republican control over government for years to come.

"We are not fighting the fights of the 1980s," he said. "We are not fighting the fights of the 1990s. We're not even fighting the fights of the last four years. We're in a new world. We're in a world where a Republican president, and a Republican House, and a Republican Senate, all gained strength during a re-election."

Democrats, meanwhile, are engaged in the most far-reaching self-examination in their history.

One message they received from the election result is that they must be more flexible, or more precisely less obstructionist as Republicans often accuse, in working with the majority on Capitol Hill.

However, Democrats know they must also adjust their messages in order to have any chance of a political comeback.

Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln says the problem is not necessarily the principles Democrats have traditionally defended, but how they have delivered their messages to gain the trust of voters.

"We always believe that our ideas are better suited to meet the needs of the American people, and on Tuesday the American people told us something very important," she said. "That they wanted us to know that what they believe matters more than what we think that solution should be."

That was a reference, of course, to the issue of moral values which emerged as a major factor in the election, along with religious faith.

Stan Greenberg, a Democratic party polling expert, says Democrats not only failed to give voters adequate reasons to support Mr. Kerry despite clear contrasts with President Bush, but also failed to connect with Americans of faith.

"Democrats need a powerful economic narrative, not just policies, to address," he said. "And on values, the answer on values is not going to be to not be socially or culturally tolerant. Rights and tolerance have got to be central to who the Democrats are, and you build from there. But that doesn't mean you aren't at one with voters of faith."

Mr. Greenberg says Republicans turned the election into one about values and safety rather than Iraq and the economy.

Democratic activist, Robert Borosage, says Democrats must turn things around, but should not do so at the expense of traditional causes.

"The Democratic party is the party of diversity, it's the party that represents the values of the civilizing movements of our generation, the women's movement, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, those are majoritarian sentiments," he said.

To have any chance of winning in the future, Donna Brazile, who managed several Democratic campaigns, says Democrats need to re-build, brick by brick.

"In order to win future elections at the presidential, congressional and state level we must do more than just tune up and turn out more people," she said. "We must find the language and words that clearly spell out who we are, what we stand for, and why we fight for our values."

President Bush has signaled he will move aggressively on such domestic agenda items as social security and tax reform, and energy legislation, as well as future nominations to the Supreme Court.

Republicans, such as Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman, are confident they are in perfect position to prevail in any fight.

"This is now for us not the time to be careful, to consolidate our gains, or to triangulate a strategy," he said. "The American people expect us to be bold, and we have the votes to do it, and we should go about being bold."

Other Republicans are looking ahead to the next mid-term congressional election in 2006, and the 2008 presidential vote, predicting additional Democratic losses.

Senator George Allen says Democrats need to start cooperating with the majority in Congress if they want to avoid this.

"Real people in the real world wanted to see action, and ladies and gentlemen, they are going to see action," he said. "We have 55 [Republican majority] in the Senate."

Democratic leaders are, at least on the surface, not intimidated.

"Rather than having this table set the way the president likes it, the table is set for us, to go forward and hold the Republican administration accountable," said House minority leader Nancy Pelosi.

But Republicans say if the outcome of the 2004 election is managed efficiently, using issues that resonated with voters while continuing to reach outside the traditional party base, they could be on the way to a permanent lopsided governing majority.

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