LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – To hear Democrats tell it, an anxious and isolated public craves a sense of national community and would galvanize behind a leader who asks people to sacrifice for the greater good. John Edwards says he's that leader.
Wait a minute, so does Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack. Ditto for Virginia Gov. Mark Warner.
Edwards, Vilsack and Warner, all likely presidential candidates in 2008, are toying with the same lofty community-and-purpose message. And that says as much about the sour mood of the country as it does about the state of the Democratic Party.
"There is a hunger in America, a hunger for a sense of national community, a hunger for something big and important and inspirational that they all can be involved in," Edwards, the party's 2004 vice presidential nominee, told delegates at a weekend convention of Florida Democrats.
"Americans don't want to believe that they are out there on an island all alone," the former North Carolina senator said.
This is not a new theme. As first lady, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York wrote, "It Takes a Village," a book arguing that a community is an important part of a child's development. Her husband, President Clinton, tried to create a sense of national purpose when he asked Americans to help "build a bridge to the 21st century."
The difference now is that six of every 10 people tell pollsters that the country is headed on the wrong track. Democrats believe they can put Republicans on the defensive by articulating the public's sense of malaise and offering hope to erase it.
Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean has commissioned confidential polling and analysis that suggest candidates in 2006 and 2008 should frame their policies — and attacks on Republicans — around the context of community.
It seems to be the emerging message from a party that has been bereft of one.
"What's happening in this country is we're losing our sense of common purpose," Vilsack told Florida Democrats. "We're losing a sense of community."
The second-term Iowa governor said two-thirds of parents do not think their children will fare better in life than they did and that 40 percent of children do not believe in the national dream.
He ascribed that pessimism to job and pension insecurity in a global economy, increasing health costs, and the rise of terrorism — an unsettling mix that has created "general anxiety" in America. Vilsack said Democrats should remind voters that Republicans failed to ease those concerns while they held power.
"When we work together, when rely on one another, when we care about one another we remove the fear of sharing," Vilsack said. "I believe the current administration and its polices is eroding the sense of community. This country's two great things — the self-reliant individual supported by community — is what made the American dream ... possible."
Vilsack, expressing a view shared by both Warner and Edwards, said his party can win the values debate if they make community-building a Democratic virtue.
"If we do that, we will have success in elections and we will be able to government effectively," he said. "We need to use the sense of community to say to Americans that Democrats will keep them safe" and protect their interests in a fast-changing global economy.
The three Democrats also shared the view that Bush missed an opportunity after the Sept. 11 attacks to rally the nation behind a cause such as weaning the country from foreign oil or, if Edwards had his way, fighting poverty.
"My biggest concern isn't what (Bush) has done. It's what he hasn't done — that he has never called on that spirit to make America great," Warner said.
Vilsack (adopted into a troubled family), Edwards (raised in a middle-class mill town), and Warner (the first college graduate in his family) said their modest upbringings were successful because a community of people helped their parents lift them up — teachers, coaches and neighbors.
"None of us got here on ourselves," Edwards said. "What we do together matters. What we do as a national community matters."
Edwards, Vilsack, Warner and Hillary Clinton are among the dozen or so Democrats actively exploring presidential bids.
To avoid showing any preference, the Florida Democrats reserved their keynote address for a Democrat who has not signaled his intention to seek the presidency, freshman Sen. Barack Obama.
The eloquent Illinois lawmaker stitched together a narrative of two century's of American life — the previous 100 years and the ones to come.
Spellbound delegates heard him criticize GOP plans to give people more control over their retirement plans, their choice of schools and their health care savings.
Equating the GOP agenda for Social Security, public school vouchers and Medicare with "social Darwinsim," Obama said the key to the nation's success is striking a balance between individual and collective responsibility.
"It has to do with individuals," he said, "but it also has to do with community."