Democrats gather to talk about new party leader

Sunday, December 12, 2004

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Eight potential candidates to head the Democratic Party pledged on Saturday a renewed commitment to win votes from churchgoers and appeal to people throughout the South and West.

The next chairman of the Democratic National Committee will become one of the party's leading opponents to President Bush's second-term agenda and a principal planner of the Democrats' strategy to rebound from widespread losses in recent years.

In February, nearly 450 committee members will pick for a successor to Terry McAuliffe, a close ally of former President Clinton who is stepping down after four years in the post. No favorite was evident this weekend at an assembly of state party leaders.

In five-minute speeches to the gathering of Democratic officials, the possible contenders did not mention the party's defeated presidential nominee, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. But they described many areas where the national party needs to improve.

Candidates called for fresh talent, better communication with voters, new ways to campaign on values and a strategy for attracting support in rural areas. Democrats must become a more tenacious rival to the GOP, they said.

"We can't be the pussycat opposition," said former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard. "We've got to be the hard-hitting loyal opposition. Every Republican member of Congress who voted to have an indicted leader ought to be ousted and defeated."

Blanchard drew a rare interruption of applause for his reference to the House Republicans' recent change to party rules that will protect Majority Leader Tom DeLay's leadership status even if he is indicted as a a result of a campaign finance investigation in Texas.

The candidates insisted the party has the values to win broader support, but is not doing a good enough job of conveying that message.

"Too many Americans see our party as a coalition of disparate voices, but they don't understand our basic principles," said former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk. "That's our fault."

Nearly every candidate spoke of a "50-state strategy." That is a position popular with the state leaders, a majority of whom represent states neglected by Kerry's campaign.

Kerry concentrated his resources on fewer than 20 states where the race against President Bush was predicted to be close. The Democrat conceded much of the South and West to the Republican incumbent.

But as one of Kerry's rivals during the primaries, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, pointed out, Democrats were successful in winning state and local office in many parts of those regions.

"We won in Alabama, we won in Georgia. We won in Idaho, we won in South Carolina," Dean said, mocking his notorious "scream" speech from the night of the Iowa caucus that sealed his defeat in the Democratic primary.

With that election behind him, Dean is considering a run for the national party job. He distributed copies of his book, "You Have the Power," autographed for every state chairman, along with some Vermont maple syrup and a coupon for free Ben and Jerry's ice cream.

"We won in a lot of states that are so-called red states," Dean said, referring to those states that went to Bush. "There is not such thing as a red state or a blue state. They're all purple."

Aides said Dean wants to make sure he can win before declaring himself a candidate and that he is looking at the possibility of running for president again.

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