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Democrats, Republicans Get Ready for New Year's Agenda - 2002-12-27


2003 promises new opportunities and risks for both major U.S. political parties. For Republicans, the first priority will be to rally around their new Senate leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee.

Senator Frist will be the Senate majority leader when the new Congress convenes on January 7. "My colleagues have risen to the challenges of the past two weeks and we will rise to the challenges of the next two years," said Mr. Frist after his selection.

He replaces Senator Trent Lott, who resigned his leadership post after igniting a controversy by speaking favorably of then-segregationist Strom Thurmond's 1948 campaign for president.

Many Republicans say they intend to reach out to African Americans in the wake of the Lott affair. "I think it is important that we make it clear that we are interested in the people of African American origin and other minorities as well and reach out and show that we have a genuine concern and a plan for dealing with their interests," said Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran, interviewed on CBS television.

But other Republicans say they will continue to oppose affirmative action programs that rely on racial quotas. "I don't believe that Republicans are going to start endorsing quotas and preferences and that is really the area that tends to divide us," Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell told Fox television.

Republicans begin the New Year with one major political advantage, the enduring popularity of President Bush. "I think his conduct of the war on terrorism and dealing with Saddam Hussein has helped, in a fundamental way, to minimize the biggest vulnerability the president had coming in to office," said Tom Defrank, Washington Bureau Chief for the New York Daily News, "and that is that he was not heavy enough to be president." Mr. Defrank is a regular guest on VOA's 'Issues in the News' program.

The president faces two major challenges in the months ahead: the prospect of war with Iraq and reviving the faltering U.S. economy.

Opposition Democrats, meanwhile, face challenges of a far different sort in 2003. The party is still licking its wounds after losing congressional seats to the Republicans in the November elections and Democrats are doing a lot of soul searching as they consider the future of their party.

The debate over what Democrats stand for will intensify quickly in the New Year, as several prominent Democrats decide whether or not to seek the presidency in 2004.

With former Vice President Al Gore out of the running for the 2004 presidential nomination, the race appears wide open with a mix of some well known and not so well known names gearing up for a run.

Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts and Vermont Governor Howard Dean have already taken steps toward a formal campaign. Others considering a run for the White House include Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, Senator Bob Graham of Florida and Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

Two other likely candidates are Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt and New York civil rights activist Al Sharpton.

At the moment, public opinion polls suggest that none of them would give President Bush a serious challenge for reelection. But political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says so many things can change so quickly that it would be foolish to rule out a strong challenge from a Democrat in 2004. "After a two year presidential campaign, where we have a fight for the nominations, a general election campaign and, depending on what the economy looks like and what U.S. foreign policy looks like, what the situation in the Middle East looks like, I think ultimately the Democrats are going to have a serious candidate,' he said.

Democrats considering a run for president must decide soon to begin organizing their campaigns, particularly in the early caucus and primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire, which kick off the presidential nominating process in January of 2004.

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