Voters have had it with President Bush's handling of the economy, the Iraq war, and Social Security. But don't equate rejection of Republicans with an embrace of the opposition. Even while dissing Bush, a majority of Americans are buying the GOP's portrait of Democrats: weak on defense, soft on terrorism, AWOL from the culture wars, and stuck in a New Deal time warp on economic policy. "There are lingering doubts about the Democrats that haven't gone away," says Ed Kilgore, vice-president for policy of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
To many voters, the familiar face of the Democratic Party is either old (Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy) or angry (Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean). And without a President or charismatic congressional leaders, Democrats are struggling to shake the rep that they have no positive message. "Democrats are not giving voters a compelling rationale for supporting them," says Democratic pollster Matt Hogan of Democracy Corps. "Voters don't have a clear idea what Democrats stand for."
And for good reason. Party liberals want hard-charging economic populism -- even if that means challenging pro-business, free-trade Democrats. Centrists want to fight violent Muslim extremism and tolerate faith in public discourse -- moves the Left derides as "Bush Lite." Indeed, calls for moderation seem to have been drowned out by liberal cries for sharper contrasts.
This internal debate has complicated Democrats' efforts to attract key voter blocs. Among them:
RURAL WHITES. Bush carried this group by 22 percentage points in 2004, but dissatisfaction with the economy and the war has given Democrats an opportunity. Democracy Corps polls over the past four months show the GOP edge slipping to nine points. Still, these voters are deeply suspicious of Democrats on social issues and think the out party is weak on terrorism.
WHITE MAINLINE PROTESTANTS. Nonevangelical Protestants are alienated by the GOP's Religious Right agenda on stem cell research and evolution. The President narrowly carried this bloc, which constitutes 22% of the electorate, in '04. Now, Dems have opened an 8-point lead. But these economic conservatives are wary of anti-business, tax-and-spend liberals.
SENIORS. Older voters, patriotic and socially conservative, have been turned off by Bush's plans for Social Security -- but still favor the GOP by 3 points. The reason: They don't believe Dems would do any better handling the economy or the war.
DEVOUT CATHOLICS. This historically Democratic group has become even more Republican since the '04 election -- despite their view that the Iraq invasion was a mistake and that the economy is not doing well. The Dems' problem: Family values, from abortion to gay marriage, trump other concerns.
Democrats will have a hard time appeasing these diverse groups. For example, reaching out to socially liberal Protestants could alienate conservative Catholics. And playing the patriotism card to attract older Americans could turn off the party's antiwar base.
Democratic strategists say they have plenty of time to find a message that is both affirmative and galvanizing. Possible '06 themes include an economic safety net for the middle class, curbs on lobbyists, and a retooled war on terrorism. But unless the message sounds dynamic and new, Democrats could be fumbling their best political opening of the Bush era.
Democrats may take the rap for being a party of old faces and old ideas. But the party has new stars it could highlight to counter voters' impressions of its weaknesses. Here are a few:
Senator Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) has ranch roots, seminary schooling, and fierce-on-crime credentials as a state attorney general. Some Dems say Salazar, 50, a rare pol willing to work across the partisan divide, could become the first Latino President.
Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) made a splash with his dynamic keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. In his first year in Washington, Obama, 44, has concentrated on serving Illinois interests on issues like health-care funding for wounded veterans. But the party is likely to spotlight his talk of faith, family, and economic mobility, which appeals to voters across the political spectrum.
Representative Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) may be the Democratic Newt Gingrich: the visionary and strategist who helps his party retake the House. Smart, pragmatic, and tough, the 45-year-old former Clinton political adviser is concocting a pro-investment economic agenda designed to attract the middle class and small business.
Virginia Governor Mark Warner, 50, proved a fiscally conservative Democrat could carry suburbs and rural regions in a red state. He has worked with a GOP legislature to turn a deep deficit into a surplus.
Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley has become the party's go-to guy on protecting the homeland. The telegenic mayor, 42, has developed a detailed plan for rail and port safety and has been an outspoken critic of White House security priorities.