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Democrats Map Out a Different Strategy

Times Staff Writers

Reeling from their party’s loss in the presidential election, some key Democratic financiers and strategists say they have learned a clear lesson: Next time around, no Northeasterners need apply.

The blue-state party needs a face from a red state if it is going to expand beyond its base on the two coasts and preserve its hold on the Upper Midwest, where its long-standing appeal to voters has become tenuous, these insiders say.

Their voices -- if they become ascendant as the Democratic Party undertakes a round of soul-searching after Tuesday’s losses by presidential nominee John F. Kerry and key Senate candidates -- could dampen prospects for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who has been frequently mentioned as a prominent White House contender in 2008.

The concerns about the party’s direction also could lift lesser-knowns such as Govs. Mark R. Warner of Virginia and Michael F. Easley of North Carolina, who are widely seen as effective communicators of a populist Democratic message in Republican-leaning states.

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“We have to be very careful about the kind of candidate that we nominate and where that candidate comes from,” said Scott Falmlen, executive director of the Democratic Party in North Carolina, where Easley won in a landslide Tuesday despite Kerry’s lopsided loss there to President Bush. “This party has got to get in a position where it does not write off an entire section of the country.”

Dick Harpootlian, former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, was more blunt. “As of now, Hillary Clinton’s a bad idea,” he said.

The standard-bearer should be a face from the South or the Midwest, he added, naming Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, this year’s vice presidential nominee, or Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana as presidential possibilities.

“Do we see a pattern here? No L.A., no Cambridge, no Manhattan,” said Harpootlian, who remains a key party strategist in South Carolina. “The majority of America isn’t from those areas, and they don’t hold the values of these folks.”

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Steve Jarding, a Democratic strategist who helped engineer Warner’s victory in Virginia by courting rural voters, said the governor’s stock rose with the realization that Kerry, a senator from Massachusetts, could take the party only so far. Democrats, he said, were now “looking South. We’re looking ... for a proven winner.”

Following Kerry’s defeat, “it’d be very difficult for a Northeasterner to convince the party that they are the right standard-bearer,” said one fundraiser for the senator’s campaign, who was not named because of the sensitivity of the subject. “That’s the message I’m hearing from a lot of people.”

The consternation comes as party strategists begin to grapple with what the centrist Democratic Leadership Council called a “slow but significant erosion of Democratic support in recent years.”

The electoral map featuring red and blue states, illustrating Republican and Democratic victories, became even more red this year as Republicans claimed two formerly Democratic states -- New Mexico and Iowa -- while nearly scoring victories in other Democratic strongholds, such as Wisconsin. Democrats, by contrast, this year claimed only one state that the GOP had won in 2000: New Hampshire.

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Days after their loss, Democratic leaders began trying to sort out how much of their problem had to do with the messenger, and how much with the message.

Some said that Kerry’s campaign platform -- including his support of middle-class tax cuts and tax increases for the wealthy -- would have succeeded had it been delivered by another person.

They noted that even though Kerry lost Colorado by 6 percentage points, Democrats claimed both chambers of the state Legislature from Republicans and elected a Democrat to replace retiring GOP Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

In Montana, where Kerry lost by 21 percentage points, a Democrat was elected governor for the first time in 16 years.

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And in North Carolina, where Easley won reelection as governor, Democrats also reclaimed the House from Republicans and retained control of the Senate, despite a 9-point loss by Kerry.

Still, many Democratic strategists began thinking about how to refocus the party’s message -- including looking for ways to marry the Democrats’ traditional belief in an active government with the culturally conservative views that predominate among many Southern and heartland voters.

Exit polls suggested that as many as one-fourth of the voters on Tuesday ranked “values” as their leading concern, guiding many of them to back Bush, a born-again Christian, over Kerry, a Catholic who supported abortion rights and opposed a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

Kirk Wagar, a Miami trial lawyer who helped raise $15 million for this year’s campaign as the Democrats’ Florida finance chairman, said he was so frustrated by the party’s inability to communicate a values-driven message to voters that he intended to launch an organization to encourage candidates who could do so in future elections.

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“I just don’t understand why we have been unable to talk” to lower- and middle-income Americans, who should be responding to the Democrats’ economic message, said Wagar, 35, a graduate of a conservative Christian college who in late 2002 hosted the first fundraiser for Kerry’s presidential campaign.

Wagar said his still-unformed organization would work with candidates who could articulate the Democrats’ “core values of opportunity and fairness” but who also didn’t “look down on the people ... in the heartland.”

The last Democratic nominee to forge a message with appeal in both red and blue states, Bill Clinton, echoed that frustration Friday as he offered advice to his beleaguered party. He said Kerry had been wounded during the campaign by Republican caricatures of him as antifamily and antireligion.

“We have to be present with a compelling message in small towns and rural areas,” Clinton told an Urban Land Institute conference in New York, according to the Bloomberg News Service. “If we don’t make the message, we can’t complain when we’re demonized -- cartoonized as aliens.”

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Jarding, the Warner ally in Virginia, said Democrats should not run from religion. He suggested they start to use language that casts the party’s belief in an active government as a matter of values.

“The Bible says when somebody is hungry you feed them, when they’re sick you heal them, when they’re naked you give them clothing,” he said. “When people are sitting around the kitchen table at night and they’re angry because they lost a job or are working two jobs, I’m guessing they don’t sit there and say, ‘Life really [stinks] but, by God, we’ve got to quit having these gay guys get married.’ ”

Harpootlian, the South Carolina Democrat, said the party is too dominated by its various interest groups, alienating a key voter in many red states: the white male.

“You can’t go to a [Democratic National Committee] meeting and have the first act be to divide up into the caucuses: the African American caucus, the Asian American caucus, the Pacific American caucus, the lesbian and gay caucus, the Native American caucus,” he said. “As a white guy from South Carolina, where’s my caucus? Where’s the white guys’ caucus?

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“That defines the problem of the Democratic Party,” he added. “They’ve got to make folks like me welcome, and make it so I don’t have to take a hard swallow every time I go to a DNC meeting.”

Al From, founder and chief executive of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, said speculation on who should run for president next time or where those candidates should hail from was misguided.

“Let’s get a message and redefine our party in a way that people will want to vote for us, and then our candidate will probably do fine,” From said. “A candidate who eliminates the culture gap, eliminates the security gap [on national defense issues], is willing to compete all over this country and has an effective agenda for reform will do fine, no matter where he or she is from.”

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Times staff writers Mary Curtius and Richard Simon contributed to this report.


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