WASHINGTON – Consider the political challenges facing Democrats: a popular Republican president, a GOP-controlled Congress, a new campaign finance law that puts them at a fund-raising disadvantage and a crowded field of White House hopefuls who lack the stature of former President Clinton or even their 2000 presidential nominee, Al Gore.
State party leaders and lawmakers who gather in Washington this week for the Democratic National Committee's winter meeting could be excused if the session looks more like a wake than a pep rally. "We're facing one of the toughest periods in our party's life," said veteran Democratic activist Donna Brazile.
Yet, on the eve of the meeting, Democrats found some reasons to be optimistic, citing potential weaknesses in the president's stewardship, particularly over the struggling economy, and an opportunity to make inroads. They point to Bush's recent approval ratings, once in the stratospheric 80 percent, dropping to as low as the mid 50s.
"For the first time in a while, people are starting to smell a little bit of blood in the water on how Bush is handling the war and the economy," said Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York.
The party strategy calls for aggressively opposing Bush on issues from the president's proposed tax cut to spending on homeland security. Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said Democrats have gone "back to the drawing board" in their get-out-the-vote effort, focusing on the direct donor base that has tripled to 1.2 million and the jump in the party's e-mail list from 70,000 in 2001 to more than a million names. And there is a success story from the Democrats' dismal showing in the 2002 midterm elections: Louisiana.
Democrat Mary Landrieu held onto her Senate seat despite campaign appearances by Bush and other Republicans for her GOP rival. Democrats also captured a U.S. House seat when Rodney Alexander was a surprise winner in the 5th Congressional District.
"Our candidates were on message all the time," said Louisiana Democratic Party Chairman Ben Jeffers. "The economy right now is bad. When our candidates talked about jobs, the high costs of things, the way the economy was moving, that message resonated."
Still, many Democrats are realists, recognizing the difficult task the party faces in the current election cycle. They are millions behind the Republicans in fund raising and hampered by the new campaign finance law that bars "soft money," the unlimited spending from businesses, unions and others for party-building efforts.
Although the Republican margin in the Senate is a mere three seats, Democrats must defend 19 next year to the GOP's 15. Further complicating that effort is the fact that conservative Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia has decided not to seek re-election in the GOP-leaning state, and three other Southern seats now held by Democrats are in play in 2004. Democrats lost ground in the last election in the House and now trail 229-205 with one independent.
On the presidential level, the disparate voices from the crowd of candidates are no match for the bully pulpit of the White House.
"There's a sense that we've been trying to box our way out of a paper bag," Weiner said. "We seem to be taking shots at the most important issue (the economy), but we can't seem to punch through."
The DNC meeting will provide the party faithful an opportunity to take a closer look at the presidential candidates, with all but Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who is recovering from prostate surgery, scheduled to address the session.
"I think we're in pretty good shape," said longtime Rep. Robert Matsui of California, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "I think we have strong candidates for president."
There is no shortage of advice for the party. The centrist Democratic Leadership Council warned recently against returning to the more liberal Democratic message typical of the party before Clinton.
"If Democrats run the right kind of campaign with a candidate who promotes economic growth and national strength and avoid slipping back to the pre-Clinton image of the party, we can take the White House," said Al From, a centrist Democrat.
South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian, who is stepping down in May, said the Democrats must focus on an economic message that appeals to middle-class voters. "There's no white-guy caucus," Harpootlian said.
But in a reflection of the problems facing Democrats, Harpootlian said he has no plans to attend the Washington session.
"I don't know what you get there that will help you win elections in South Carolina."