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Election 2004

Bewildered party soul-searches

Despite their best efforts and a president they thought was vulnerable, Democrats were left reeling by voters.

By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
Published November 4, 2004

BOSTON - They ran a Vietnam war hero on a moderate platform of deficit reduction and reuniting a divided America, against a president facing middling approval ratings, the most job losses in 70 years and a bloody, uncertain war in Iraq.

Yet the Democrats narrowly lost another bid for the presidency and relinquished four seats in the U.S. Senate, a buffeting that has rendered them virtually powerless in national affairs and brings into question, at least for the time being, the fitness of the two-party system.

Nationally, this was no landslide, and several Senate races were close. But Bush did win a clear majority, the first time in 16 years a presidential winner has done so, as Republicans consolidated their hold on the South and continued making gains in the Midwest.

South Carolina and North Carolina each lost its last Democratic Senate seat, and Louisiana gained its first Republican one.

In South Dakota, Republican John Thune's win over Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle marked the first defeat of a party's Senate leader in more than 50 years. That gave Republicans 55 seats in the Senate, and the GOP picked up at least three seats in the U.S. House.

"Democrats have got to figure out how they communicate," David Thorne, one of John Kerry's closest friends and advisers, said Wednesday after Kerry delivered an emotional concession speech. All around him, campaign staffers were crying. "I would say the values message overwhelmed the issues message."

Retiring U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., saw some significant practical implications for the year ahead. "I am afraid that the Senate may become like the House - so Republican that it doesn't have to really listen to the Democratic Party," he said.

The Republican victories underscore a hard reality for the Democrats: Despite running on what they believed were mainstream issues of job creation, fiscal responsibility, and security, the election revealed a major gap between the party's message and the public's taste.

The gains President Bill Clinton made in 1992 and 1996 are gone. By Wednesday afternoon, after Kerry's speech at historic Faneuil Hall, many Democrats already were grasping for answers.

Some acknowledged that once again, the Democrats managed to alienate and even antagonize conservative, working-class voters, particularly in the South, whom they believe should gravitate to their party's populist message. This trend started with Ronald Reagan and hasn't slowed since.

"We not only have to have a big tent, we have to open the tent flaps," said Joseph Cappuccio, a political organizer for the Service Employees International Union, who traveled the country during the campaign. "We have to bring the pro-lifers back in. ... We have to bring the traditional Catholics back in. We have to dialogue with them. Our focus has been too myopic."

Voters in 11 states, including Ohio, also approved amendments banning gay marriage. In Florida, voters overwhelming approved a constitutional amendment requiring that a girl's parents be notified before she has an abortion.

Democrats, conservative groups and analysts said it appears both issues drove huge numbers of evangelicals and social conservatives to the polls in both states, offsetting the gains the Democrats made by recruiting legions of new voters.

Once there, they voted overwhelmingly for President Bush and Republican Senate candidates. Kerry would have won the election if he had taken either state.

Dr. James Guth, an expert in conservative politics at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., said Kerry came across as awkward and a bit disingenuous when he tried to speak to Christian voters, and it was clear he never quite figured out how to address the role of faith in public policy.

"What the election showed in religious terms, which seems to have emerged (as key) from exit polls and other studies, the Democrats still haven't figured how to talk to a large part of the country that's concerned with those issues," Guth said.

Part of the trouble is inherent to the Democratic Party, because it's so diverse, he said. Its base includes secularists, evangelical African-Americans, Jews and working-class Catholics.

"It's really hard to find ... moral themes that speak to the entire party," Guth said. "That's the reason for the floundering around you saw."

Dan Palazzolo, an expert in congressional politics at the University of Richmond, said most U.S. House seats now are so solidly Democrat or Republican that it will likely be the next redistricting, a decade away, before Democrats can even hope to catch up to the Republican majority.

Their chances are better in the Senate and White House, because those elections do require broad-based support, he said.

Meanwhile, if Democrats can't find the recipe for attracting more conservative voters, they have at least one thing going for them: time. Young Americans are more socially liberal than the Republican Party's values reflect, and Palazzolo predicts that fact will eventually sap some of the party's gains as those young adults start voting.

"I'm not saying that's going to happen any time soon, in the next 12 years or so," he said. "That doesn't give them a lot of comfort, but in terms of the electorate, the choices the Democrats will offer in a couple of election cycles will be a little more appealing."

[Last modified November 4, 2004, 00:42:13]

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