WASHINGTON – After disappointing elections like the Democrats had in 2002, it might be expected that their national chairman would already be gone or fighting off a challenge.
But Terry McAuliffe is in the midst of pushing the party through a critical transition in its technology and fund-raising techniques. And there appeared to be little sentiment among those attending the party's winter meeting this week for interrupting his task. Democrats lost the Senate in 2002, fell further behind in the House and didn't win as many governorships as they expected.
"We have too much to do," said former Florida Democratic chairman Bob Poe. "Right now is not the time to change."
The 46-year-old McAuliffe outlined his efforts to the media Thursday, including the party's 18-month effort to build a computer database of direct-mail donors, verify 158 million voter records and increase its e-mail list. And he promised Friday that those new tools would be available for the eventual nominee -- and asked the candidates to agree to work together for the winner.
"All we ask from you, the candidates, is one simple thing in return -- your pledge to come together and support our nominee once the primary process wraps up in the spring of 2004," McAuliffe said Friday.
The top job for Democrats is replacing the $100 million in unlimited "soft money" donations from corporations, unions and individuals that the party collected in the cycle ending with the 2000 presidential elections. The political parties are banned from collecting soft money under the new campaign finance law.
McAuliffe later gave the same presentation to members of the Democratic National Committee in a well-attended session.
"The chairman saw that there was a sea change after McCain-Feingold," said Mike McCurry, former press secretary for President Clinton, referring to new campaign finance law.
McAuliffe, a wealthy businessman originally from Syracuse, N.Y., has also won backers through his support of state and local parties.
South Carolina Democratic Chairman Dick Harpootlian seldom praises the national Democratic Party, and he didn't attend this meeting. But he's quick to praise McAuliffe. "Terry McAuliffe has delivered on every promise he made," Harpootlian said this week.
The chairman has friends in high places, being a close associate of former President Clinton and a one-time fund-raiser for presidential candidate Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri. McAuliffe won praise from another of the presidential candidates, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, after the 2004 Democratic convention was awarded to Boston last year.
While McAuliffe's close ties to Clinton were seen as important in his rise to power within the party, several Democrats noted this week that his party involvement started well before Clinton became president.
"Terry was involved with the party pre-Clinton," said Larry Scanlon, political director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "He grew up in upstate New York, where his father was involved in the party. He's lived this life forever."
McAuliffe heard some scattered criticism after the 2002 elections, including some from supporters of unsuccessful New York gubernatorial candidate Carl McColl, who is black. They said the Democratic Party didn't offer enough financial support to McColl. McAuliffe responded at the time that he'd given what he could, but also had to commit money in many other competitive races.
Some Democrats at the meeting said the party' failure in the 2002 election have been overstated.
"When George Bush stole the White House there were 50 Republican senators, today there's only 51," said Bob Mulholland, campaign adviser for the California Democratic Party. "There were 19 Democratic governors, today there's 24."
Many Democrats still argue that then-Vice President Al Gore defeated Bush in Florida in the 2000 election and thus should have been president.