Democrats Seek New Messenger and a Message
By ADAM NAGOURNEY
WASHINGTON, Nov. 15 — Democratic leaders, in a stark assessment of the coming two years, say their party is bereft of obvious new leaders and threatened by divisive ideological battles as it struggles to determine how to deal with the new Republican dominance in Washington.
In interviews, Democrats around the country said their losses had left them without a platform or standard-bearer to counter the powerful voice of the White House.
The presidential contenders who might fill that void include, thus far, only familiar faces from the past and lesser-known Democrats who have yet to capture the eye of party leaders the way Bill Clinton did a decade ago.
"We don't have the White House, we don't have nothing," said Donna Brazile, the manager of Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. "We have to get out there fighting like we've got something."
Art Torres, the California Democratic chairman, said: "The question is, how do we get through this maze, and that gets down to the messenger and the message. Clinton was a master at that. But we don't have Bill Clinton running for office anymore."
In the Senate, 20 Democrats who are distressed about the election met privately on Wednesday to form a group that Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said would push the party to be more assertive on traditionally Democratic issues, starting with the objection of many Democrats to President Bush's tax cut. That move, combined with the unhappiness across the party's left about how the Democrats fought this losing campaign, could foreshadow an ideological battle with moderates, who have largely controlled the party since Mr. Clinton's election in 1992.
In the interviews, Democrats stopped short when asked to name whom they viewed as the faces of their party. "There are several," said Bob Poe, the Democratic chairman in Florida, after pausing a full five seconds. "I don't mean that to be a nonanswer. I don't think anyone has yet to emerge. But it's coming."
The problem is pronounced in Washington. The party's most prominent leaders — Richard A. Gephardt, the House minority leader, and Tom Daschle, the Senate majority leader (soon to be minority leader) — have been at least partly politically discredited by the losses on their watch, as has the Democratic chairman, Terry McAuliffe.
Although Mr. Clinton remains hugely popular among some Democrats, party leaders could not help noting that his presence on the campaign trail did little for some candidates. And Mr. Gore, who begins a high-profile tour this weekend to promote a book, remains, fairly or not, a symbol in many quarters of Democratic defeat and the past.
The only relatively fresh face in the party leadership is Representative Nancy Pelosi, 62, who was elected to replace Mr. Gephardt as minority leader after he decided to step down. She entered the House in 1987, but is barely known outside her hometown, San Francisco, and Republicans have already tried to present her as ideologically out of step with most of the nation.
The absence of major figures atop the Democratic ladder has led to a flurry of activity by some lesser-known presidential contenders who see opportunity in this turmoil.
Two of them — Senator John Edwards of North Carolina and Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont — delivered what their advisers billed as "major speeches" this week that were critical of the Democratic orthodoxy and intended to present themselves as a new generation of leaders. Mr. Edwards plans a second such speech next week.
"It's not enough to critique Bush," Mr. Edwards said. "We have to lay out a clear vision and substantial ideas about where we want to go."
Another likely Democratic presidential contender, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, said: "It is up to us to approach the country with new energy and some new ideas. The most important is just to be absolutely clear to the country about the choices that the party is fighting for. I don't think it was clear enough this year."
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