- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2003

PHILADELPHIA — A top Democratic pollster warned yesterday that the party is losing ground among middle class voters and that the erosion will worsen if Democrats nominate a liberal, antiwar presidential candidate in 2004.

“Swing voters are unlikely to vote for a Democrat unless he can offer a vision to compete with Republicans when it comes to national defense and homeland security,” Mark Penn, chief pollster for former President Bill Clinton, told the annual summer meeting of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

Citing data showing a 50-year decline in Democratic affiliation by voters — especially in the middle class — Mr. Penn said Democrats now are the majority party only among voters in the lowest income group.

As a result, he said, the party “is a shadow of its former self.”

The Democratic Party “is threatened with a takeover by the far left,” said Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, the DLC’s national chairman, who opened the conference that was billed “Why We Are Fighting.”

DLC founder Al From said “the problem with [the Democrats] is that we’re not in the debate” on national security.

“We’re at a time when our country is in peril. The Democratic nominee for president in 2004 has to first cross the threshold on national security so that voters will listen to him on the economy. If we do that we’ll have a chance of winning. If we don’t, we won’t,” Mr. From said in an interview with The Washington Times.

DLC leaders did not mention former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean by name, but made clear their concern that Mr. Dean — who has been harshly critical of the war in Iraq — has become the early front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

The Democrats’ position on national security is threatened by “a big antiwar faction in our party,” said Mr. From, who founded the DLC in the mid-1980s to pull the party more toward the political middle.

“The right position on the war is to be for the war. What’s really at stake is our way of life,” he said. “You’ve got to tell people how you can make the country stronger and safer.”

At the same time, Mr. From had some words of support for Mr. Dean’s chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who voted for the congressional war resolution but who has been sharply critical of President Bush’s handling of postwar Iraq.

“I think Kerry could be a very effective nominee. I think Kerry could run as a New Democrat,” Mr. From said.

Hundreds of elected Democratic officials from 43 states who gathered here for the DLC conference were given a grim assessment of their party’s shrinking base.

The Democratic Party “is hurt by current perceptions that Democrats stand for big government, want to raise taxes too high, are too liberal, and are beholden to special interest groups,” Mr. Penn said, detailing the results of his poll commissioned by the DLC.

“Half a century ago, a near majority of voters identified themselves as a part of the Democratic Party. Today that number has declined to roughly one-third of all voters,” he said.

Republicans held especially strong leads among white male voters, as well as married men and women with children.

“Democrats only lead among the lowest income category, voters who earn less than $20,000 per year,” he said.

The Democrats’ decline among middle class voters will continue “unless the Democratic Party broadens its appeal,” he said.

And contrary to the belief that most Democrats are liberals, Mr. Penn said his poll found that two-thirds of Democrats identify themselves as moderate or conservative. Only 35 percent called themselves liberal.

The DLC yesterday showcased seven DLC-supported “New Democrat” governors, including Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania, Jennifer M. Granholm of Michigan, Mark Warner of Virginia, Janet Napolitano of Arizona, Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas and James E. McGreevey of New Jersey. They told of how they balanced their budgets without raising broad-based taxes and in some cases by cutting taxes.

One of them, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico who has cut income taxes across the board, told the conference that Democrats “have to be able to use force when diplomacy fails and our national security is being threatened.”

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