WASHINGTON – The dip in President Bush's popularity has Democrats dreaming of brighter days for their out-of-power party, but only if they show voters clear leadership and a fresh message.
Right now, they have neither.
Democratic strategists say they believe Hurricane Katrina (search) may be a tipping-point event, intensifying the yearlong decline of support for the war in Iraq and raising doubts about Bush's leadership abilities.
Already worried about their jobs, their financial security and the nation's future, many Americans watched in horror as relief came slowly to Katrina — and chalked it up to across-the-board government failure. If their anxiety and cynicism translates into a throw-the-bums-out mood, Republicans could suffer in next year's elections.
"I think there's a lot of anger and we're gaining because of that," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (search), chairman of the House Democratic campaign committee. "We could blow it. They can gain ground they've lost, but there's a big shift going on."
"Democrats just have to be clear about what the choice is between us and Republicans," he said, "and be clear about the decisions we will make for America."
That's a tall order when the party has no single leader or message.
"You can't just be the one who criticizes; you have to be the one who offers a new road," said Democratic consultant Chris Kofinis (search), who helped draft Wesley Clark into the 2004 presidential race.
Who is the party's leader? Former presidential candidate Howard Dean (search) is chairman of the Democratic National Committee, but that is traditionally a fund-raising and organizing position.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (search) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi are often overshadowed by their party's presidential prospects in Congress. Chief among them are Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and the 2004 Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry.
Former President Clinton can still command center stage. Several Democratic governors are emerging national figures.
It's no wonder the party's message is muddled.
"No congressional party is ever going to speak with one voice. It's not possible. And I'm not worried about that," said Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf, who has worked for congressional and presidential campaigns.
"We're not in power. We don't run anything. So the standard by which voters hold us to is lower than the president's party."
While polls show Bush's job approval is at the lowest of his presidency, more than eight in 10 Republicans still back him. An AP-Ipsos poll suggests there is a significantly higher percentage of people who call themselves "strong Republicans" than those who consider themselves "strong Democrats."
Those are good signs for Republicans because midterm election cycles, like the one next year, are usually dominated by loyal voters.
Still, several senior Republicans said privately that they expected to see some GOP candidates distance themselves from Bush unless he turns his fortunes around. While Democratic strategists say taking control of Congress, particularly the House, is a long shot, their party has got its swagger back.
"There are so many Bush naysayers because of Iraq, there's a piling on effect going on," complained Republican consultant Chris Depino of New Haven, Conn. "Democrats are experts at piling on."
On Katrina, Democrats concede they need to be careful about attacking Bush.
"In politics, tone and modulation matter," said Democratic strategist Jim Jordan, a veteran of congressional and presidential campaigns.
Paul Begala (search), a longtime adviser to Bill Clinton, paraphrased Napoleon: "Never interrupt your opponent when he's destroying himself."
Dean, armed with DNC polling on voters' values, has been trying for months to reshape the party's message in terms that appeal to parents' anxieties about their children and the public's growing desire to build stronger communities.
In his first major post-Katrina speech, Dean said, "We need to open our eyes in our own communities. We need to rebuild America."
Former Sen. John Edwards spoke of building a society that lifts up the poor.
As if to underscore how disparate the voices of Democrats could be, Kerry delivered a blistering, campaign-style critique of Bush's performance in the Gulf Coast.
"The 'We'll do whatever it takes' administration doesn't have what it takes to get the job done," he said.
Katrina has overshadowed the nomination of John Roberts to be chief justice. Though his confirmation is virtually assured, liberal interest groups have put the squeeze on Senate Democrats to oppose Roberts and Bush's yet-to-be-named pick to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
"A lot of Democrats feel cross-pressured," Jordan said. "They're uneasy about Roberts' record. They're more uneasy about his refusal to answer questions about it. But they instinctively feel some measure of deference to the president on these appointments and, let's face it, Roberts was a good pick for Bush."
Republicans may be worried, but at least they have a leader.