In the wake of historic gains by Republicans in the mid-term election this past Tuesday, Democratic party officials are seeking to put a positive spin on the election outcome. Key Democratic officials and congressional leaders are already trying to shift the focus to the next election in 2004.
In explaining their losses, key Democrats and party officials say probably the most significant factor was President Bush's continuing popularity as a leader more than a year after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
On election day, opinion polls put the president's approval rating among Americans at about 65 percent. Mr. Bush flew from state to state for final campaign appearances with Republican candidates.
"The Republicans had the advantage of running on the coat-tails of a Republican President with the highest approval rating in modern history, and a president who spent an unprecedented amount of time campaigning. We were out-spent," said Patty Murray, a Democratic senator from the state of Washington that lost Democrats votes. "Republican campaigns spent more money than in any other off-year election, and the president put the full resources of the federal government in pursuit of political victory."
Democratic Congressman Richard Gephardt and Senator Tom Daschle, say Republicans benefited from public support for Mr. Bush after the September 11 attacks. "It is significant when you have a president at 65 percent rating. That is unusual," said Mr. Gephardt. "I think some of it is related to September 11 and the people's reaction the people's desire to be united with the President in fighting against these issues and trying to solve these issues. I think all of that had a big impact in this."
Despite these facts, key Democratic lawmakers and party officials have already begun what some observers say is a political "resurrection" aimed at winning the 2004 presidential election.
Although Democrats suffered defeats Tuesday in key states, and lost their majority in the Senate, Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe appears mostly unfazed.
He says Republican victories were "tactical" in nature, and do not represent a major ideological shift on issues in favor of Republicans. With congressional control now in their hands, he adds, the pressure will be on Republicans and President Bush in 2004.
"The president got what he asked for last night, and now he will have to produce. He will have to come up with an economic plan, something more than terrorism insurance and the firing of [SEC chairman] Harvey Pitt. No more blame game," he said. "No more nonsense about a dysfunctional Senate. This is his sputtering economy. He must take responsibility for it. No more politicking to distract himself from the nation's business."
Republicans, enjoying the aftermath of trend-defying Republican election victories, obviously see things differently.
Republican National Committee chairman, Marc Racicot, says Democrats failed in their attempt to focus voters primarily on economic issues.
Trent Lott, the incoming Senate majority leader, says the election reflects how Americans have changed since the September 11 terrorist attacks, and their impatience with what he describes as Democratic foot-dragging in Congress.
"That did have an effect on this election. People do want security here at home. I think they didn't understand why we couldn't come to an agreement on creating a new homeland security department," he said. "I think they do have confidence in this president's leadership in fighting the war on terror, and taking on the al-Qaida. They do want Congress to support and work with out president as the commander-in-chief."
In the wake of Tuesday's election, Democrats with known presidential ambitions, such as Richard Gephardt and Tom Daschle, are remaining silent, for now, on their plans for the 2004 presidential election.
Democratic chairman McAuliffe predicts a number of Democrats will announce for the 2004 race. By then, he says, Democrats will have learned from Tuesday's election and strengthened the party's base and organization in key states.