WASHINGTON – After losing back-to-back presidential elections (search), Democratic leaders are trying to figure out how to make the party more relevant to mainstream Americans and keep it from slipping into perpetual minority-party status.
And the task is daunting, many Democratic consultants and leaders agree.
Republicans have cut deeply into formerly Democratic areas in rural America, the Sunbelt, and among Hispanics, the nation's fastest-growing minority group. They have made gains on "family values" issues, winning over social conservatives who previously voted Democratic on economic issues, while keeping their advantage on national defense.
"We were on a tough playing field," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (search), D-Calif., suggesting Republicans had made inroads among socially conservative former Democrats by emphasizing "wedge issues" like gay marriage and abortion.
Ballot measures in 11 states to ban gay marriage also helped boost turnout for Republicans.
Democrats also have no strong leader to pull the party out of the wilderness.
With the defeat of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (search) of South Dakota, the party's top two congressional leaders are Pelosi, a San Francisco-area liberal, and Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, now the No. 2 leader, known mostly as a low-key insider.
For 2008, the presumptive leading presidential candidates are New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Northeastern centrist and one of the most polarizing figures in American politics, and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, a trial lawyer and failed vice presidential candidate with little public service besides six years in Congress.
Democrats have a bad case of the blues after seeing so much red.
A look at the 2004 election map with states President Bush won in red and John Kerry's in blue underscores the dilemma.
Unbroken stretches of red nearly from coast to coast, encompassing most of the heartland, the South, the Great Plains, the desert Southwest and the Rocky Mountain West. Blue states are mostly a fringe along both coasts — the Northeastern seaboard and the West Coast states of California, Oregon and Washington — along with some of the industrial states bordering the Great Lakes.
Democrats suffer from a chronic geographical and ideological predilection: They nominate candidates from the political left who have a hard time appealing to those in the middle.
"My advice to the Democrats is never, never nominate anybody from Massachusetts again," said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University.
The last Northeastern Democrat elected president was John F. Kennedy in 1960. Since then, just three Democrats — all from the South — have served: Lyndon Johnson of Texas, Jimmy Carter of Georgia and Bill Clinton of Arkansas.
Once solidly Democratic, the South today is solidly Republican.
Democrats also lost seats in the House and Senate, increasing GOP majorities there.
"I don't think there's any question that we did not get the wind, the uplift that we had expected in this campaign," said Rep. Robert Matsui, D-Calif., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "The red states, after the debates, got redder."
Al From, head of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, which helped put Bill Clinton on the path to the White House in 1992, said Democrats "have to do a better job with connecting with those people who go to work every day and play by the rules."
"We need to compete all over the country. We can't allow ourselves to abandon any region like the South. And we can't cede territory to the Republicans because they'll take every inch we give."
Jenny Backus, a Democratic consultant, said the election wasn't as close as Bush's 3.5 million-vote victory makes it seem. She suggested a swing to Kerry of 100,000 votes in Ohio would have given him the presidency.
Still, she said: "I think we can do a better job — and I don't blame this on Kerry, it's just something constitutionally we haven't done — of talking more about our values and love of country."
Democrats search the dark clouds for signs of light. Republicans could overplay their hand. Democrats still have an edge among Hispanics, which they could exploit. Focusing most of their attention this year on battleground states, they could do more to reach out to voters in other parts of the country, particularly in the Southwest and Mountain States.
Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, said he's seen the Republican party all but written off in the past when Democrats simultaneously ruled the White House and Congress — only to come roaring back.
"Eventually, the party in power is going to screw up," Hess said.
House Democratic leader Pelosi put it another way. "Quite frankly, I think the table is set for us in the next election," she said. "We have lost just about everything that we can lose."