Wednesday, June 2, 2004

John Kerry’s campaign strategists and top Democratic officials say their party is more unified than ever for the 2004 presidential election.

Don’t believe it, of course.

Apparent desertions by Democrats backing independent candidate Ralph Nader are mounting, along with bitter grumblings from black and Hispanic leaders who say Mr. Kerry has taken them for granted.

His troubles with an often-contentious political base do not end there. According to a recent Newsweek Poll of registered voters, 12 percent of all Democrats said they would vote for President Bush, twice as many as the percentage of Republicans who now say they will vote for Mr. Kerry.

“There is more unity in this election cycle than has ever been seen before, but that doesn’t mean that there is no disagreement and everything is hunky-dory,” said Democratic campaign strategist Maria Cardona.

Failed antiwar candidate Howard Dean has reconciled his differences with Mr. Kerry and embraced his candidacy, but Democrats tell me many Dean supporters have not.

Mr. Kerry has attempted to thread the needle in the Iraq debate, trying to hold on to his party’s large antiwar base by bashing Mr. Bush’s handling of the postwar situation every chance he gets, while muting his acceptance of America’s long-term commitment there. That has apparently displeased Democrats on both sides of the issue.

“There are Democrats who are upset with Kerry over his position on the war,” said chief Nader spokesman Kevin Zeese. “You can see that Kerry is aware of that as well.

“We met with him and his staff and noticed afterward that his staff said that Iraq was not discussed, when of course it was,” Mr. Zeese said. “What I make of that is that he is very insecure about the issue because he wants the peace vote and the war vote.”

No one knows yet how many antiwar activists, who form the base of Mr. Dean’s supporters, are backing Mr. Nader. But the consumer crusader, who is emphasizing his opposition to the U.S. occupation and said he would pull all military forces out of Iraq, is showing some of his largest numbers in heavily Democratic states like Oregon, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where Mr. Kerry has lost support in the past month.

Other episodes of disunity have erupted in the past month. Among them:

c Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, one of the country’s most politically powerful Hispanic organizations, openly complained to Mr. Kerry that not “a single one of your senior staff is Latino. Quite frankly, we find this deeply troubling and raise questions about the seriousness of your commitment to diversity.”

“Amazingly, the Kerry campaign has nobody it can put on Telemundo or Univision who can speak Spanish,” Ryan Lizza once wrote in the liberal New Republic magazine.

Party leaders say that since Mr. Yzaquirre’s angry broadside, the senator’s advisers have addressed Hispanic concerns. “There was a meeting the other night of Kerry’s campaign outreach staffers and Latinos, and it seems things are on the right track now,” Miss Cardona told me.

But other Hispanic leaders, who do not want to go public with their complaints, told me they are waiting to see how much of a policymaking role Hispanics will actually have in the Kerry campaign.

c Donna Brazile, one of the party’s leading black strategists who managed Al Gore’s 2000 campaign, also attacked the Kerry campaign last month for not placing more blacks in positions of influence on his staff.

“The last thing the Democratic Party needs in 2004 is to repeat the failures of its most recent past on matters or race and inclusion,” Ms. Brazile said.

“If the past is indeed prologue, this message has been lost on John Kerry’s campaign, which has failed to understand how to navigate one of the most important issues in American politics: race relations and diversity,” she said.

David Bositis, chief pollster at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which examines issues of interest to black voters, says Mr. Kerry will have no problems with the black vote. “He ran very strongly among black voters in the primaries,” he said.

But Democratic state chairmen in the South tell me there is little real enthusiasm for Mr. Kerry among the black-voter base. African-American leaders remember when Ron Brown ran the Democratic National Committee and Vernon Jordan was a very visible leader in party affairs. But no such leader of their stature can be seen in the Kerry organization. Malaise “runs deeper than they realize,” a black leader told me.

If John Kerry is to have the remotest chance of winning in November, he will need a fully united, energized party behind him. As things now stand, he is a long way from that goal.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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