WASHINGTON – Times are tough for centrist Democrats. Their favored candidate, Joe Lieberman, is struggling in his presidential bid. Movement co-founder Al Gore (search) just backed the man they most fear, Howard Dean. Ralph Nader (search) may launch a third-party bid. And economic signals are pointing up for President Bush.
In the 1990s, centrists were riding high as Bill Clinton, a card-carrying member of the Democratic Leadership Council (search), occupied the White House and seemed to have perfected a political balancing act of holding onto the Democratic base while taking a few perennial Republican cudgels, such as welfare, off the table.
Now, the top Democrat is Dean, a fierce opponent of the Iraq war who has promised to roll back all of Bush's tax cuts. In May, leaders of the DLC suggested that the former Vermont governor is an elitist liberal in the tradition of George McGovern and Walter Mondale. Their memo said that wing of the Democratic party is "defined principally by weakness abroad and elitist interest-group liberalism at home."
In this challenging political climate, party centrists worry that Democrats are on the verge of suffering collective amnesia.
"What I can't understand is why our party won't heed the lessons of the one Democrat elected and re-elected to the White House in six decades," said Al From, founder and chief executive of the DLC.
Republicans are all too eager to criticize Dean for his stance against the war and Bush's tax cuts, and for signing a civil-unions bill during his tenure as governor - policy stands that appeal to the Democratic base.
Centrists are quick to point out that the two Democratic candidates whose campaigns were directly aimed at the party's core voters, McGovern in 1972 and Mondale in 1984, lost 49 states apiece.
After the 1984 loss, party activists such as From and key party leaders developed a strategy to move the Democratic Party toward the political center. It helped get Clinton elected twice before Gore set a more populist tone late in the 2000 race. Then came the 2004 campaign.
"The idea that you win elections in the middle is going right out the window," said James Campbell, a specialist in presidential campaigns at the University of Buffalo-SUNY. Democratic candidates like Lieberman, Dick Gephardt and - to a lesser extent - John Edwards and John Kerry, who have tried to position themselves in the political center on the war and on Bush's tax cuts, have struggled to gain traction with voters.
Despite fears the GOP will paint Dean as too liberal, he has a gubernatorial record of balancing Vermont's budget and supporting gun owners' rights. And Dean's campaign manager Joe Trippi said the centrists may be missing the point of Clinton's success.
"You could make the argument that Bill Clinton winning elections might have something to do with him being one of the most gifted politicians and communicators ever, regardless of his positions," Trippi said.
Dean's candidacy is bringing new voters into the process who could strengthen the party in this election and in future years, Trippi said, adding that Dean's success raising money through the Internet will help him compete with overwhelming spending by the Bush campaign.
Still, some centrists believe Dean's style is a throwback to past Democratic campaigns that have alienated swing voters.
"We spent two decades in the political wilderness because the middle class didn't trust us with their values or their taxes," said Bruce Reed, a former Clinton aide who is president of the DLC. "I, for one, don't want to go back there."
Democratic candidates have to actively remind voters they share their values on everything from faith to families, added Sen. Evan Bayh (search), the DLC's chairman.
"It's a combination of things," said Bayh, D-Ind., "that leads people to conclude that 'Democrats just don't understand folks like us.'"