Campaign officials are flatly denying a report claiming that Democrats will compare the "religious right" of the Republican Party to the Taliban regime of Afghanistan in order to make a grab for the cultural mainstream in time for the November elections.

"The GOP is out of the mainstream, some Democrats will argue next year, because it's too dependent upon an intolerant 'religious right,'" Howard Fineman writes in the Jan. 7 edition of Newsweek.

"This is an incendiary plan — essentially comparing the GOP right with the Taliban — designed to draw an outraged response from the president," he writes, referring to the fallen regime that used extreme Wahhabi Muslim beliefs to rule Afghanistan with an iron fist.

The report drew skeptical responses from representatives on both sides of the political aisle, particularly since congressional Republicans previously have warned their Democratic colleagues to refrain from comparing conservatives to the regime that allowed terrorist Usama bin Laden to flourish.

"I don't think it's a damn bit funny. I don't think it's cute and it is certainly not responsible," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, in November.

Thursday, officials from the Democratic Party committees expressed surprise at the report and distanced themselves from the supposed strategy.

"There is very little for us to say about that because Howard Fineman doesn't quote anyone for his story — for our part, there is nothing like that coming out of the DNC," said Sue Walitsky, a spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee.

"The Democratic Party, particularly at this point in the nation's history, wants to bring people together and would never pursue such a strategy," said Jennifer Palmieri, DNC press secretary. "It's an ill advised and half-baked idea."

Mark Nevins, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which oversees all of the House races, said Democrats will run local campaigns based on policy issues, not character attacks.

"We're going to run campaigns at the local level, focusing on local candidates and local issues, so to that extent were going to be talking about issues that affect people in their daily lives," like Social Security and wage concerns, Nevins said.

GOP officials, too, seemed startled at the suggestions, which come amid speculation that Democrats are planning to rally around the economy as a 2002 election issue.

"Until they actually do something, it's hard for us to say anything. We haven't seen that kind of rhetoric yet," said Kevin Sheridan, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. "It really would be quite unproductive, especially at a time when President Bush is working with Democrats and all Americans to set a civil tone and bring people together."

Bush has gotten high marks from Americans for his handling of the Sept. 11 attack aftermath, including his overtures to the American Muslim community, and repeated calls for universal tolerance among the country's many cultures and religions.

Political observers say an attempt to drag Bush down into a dirty fight by taking a stab at the religious right would be destined to backfire.

"The Democrats have gotten away with that kind of stuff for years, but I'm not so sure they'll get away with it in this environment," said Republican strategist Rich Galen, "especially with this president, who because of his actions and events that overtook us all, changed the general tone in Washington."

"Personally, I would think the Democrats would be better off campaigning on the economy," said James Lengle, assistant professor of government at Georgetown University. "Injecting the social-cultural issues into the campaign might work if there is not a more salient issue on the agenda. But in my view, I would be skeptical if that's the case."