- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 2, 2002

So many Democratic leaders are testing the waters for the 2004 presidential race that Republicans say Democrats are too distracted to construct a coherent message for November's congressional elections.
In a recent memo, Rep. J.C. Watts Jr., chairman of the House Republican Conference, said Democrats are expending energy on internal leadership battles and positioning for 2004, leaving Republicans the chance to control the messages in the 2002 election.
"There is a multi-tiered conflict going on among national Democratic leaders," he wrote. "No one leader speaks for the party, and confusion has never been greater."
Among the Democratic voices:
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, a 2000 vice-presidential nominee, who as chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee recently issued subpoenas to Enron Corp. executives for their White House connections; and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, also of Connecticut, who has been sending mixed signals about running for the 2004 presidential nomination but is attending enough events to look like a potential candidate.
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who is traveling the states campaigning for House candidates but also is leaving himself positioned for a White House run; and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who will lead the fight to keep his Senate majority.
The two most strenuous campaigners to date: Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who was in Wisconsin, Colorado and California last week; and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who attended events in Colorado and Texas.
With all of the Democratic voices, though, nobody has articulated a unifying message for the party, says Marshall Wittman, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
"There hasn't been one Democrat who's looking at 2004 who's really drawn a vision for the party," he said, though he cited several tries, including speeches by Mr. Daschle and Mr. Gephardt. He said part of the reason is that, unlike Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, the 2004 contenders aren't willing to call for a rollback of last year's tax cuts and that President Bush has taken away many of Democrats' key issues.
"Bush embraces trade tarriffs, and the Democrats can't even criticize him for cynicism, because that issue divides them, too," he said. "You have a White House that is co-opting their issues, and this makes it ever more difficult for them. Every time they think they have traction on an issue, the roadrunner moves past them."
Stephen Hess, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Democrats weren't planning on having a unifying message anyway for this year's elections, in which all House seats and 34 Senate seats are up for election. He said that allows the 2004 candidates to continue on a parallel track.
"In some ways it is really quite removed, particularly removed, from 2002, because 2002 is not going to be a national campaign," he said. He cited the effects of redistricting, which created an enormous number of safe districts for incumbents who, he said, "don't have to nationalize it; they just have to run on constituent services, and the fact that they're well-known and well-liked."
That has been the strategy all along at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, where Rep. Nita M. Lowey of New York, the committee's chairman, has said they are concentrating on matching Democratic candidates to local issues.
But if Democrats want to run on a national message, they have one on domestic issues, said Dick Morris, a past adviser to Republicans and Democrats.
"It is overshadowed, right now, by the war on terror, and the election may be waged in the shadow of that war," he said. "But the Democrats are skillfully hugging Bush on the war and not letting the voters perceive any difference between them and the administration on the issue. As a result, the only disagreements all break in favor of the Democrats, since all these domestic issues work in the Democrats' favor."


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