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Group Nudging Democratic Party to Center

Political moderates will offer an agenda that includes balancing the budget and bolstering the military, causes many on the left resist.

June 17, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Worried that Democrats have failed to adequately define an alternative to President Bush, the political arm of the centrist "New Democratic" movement today will release a broad agenda aimed at steering the party toward the political middle.

The New Democrat Network -- a group that funds centrist Democratic candidates -- also will release a poll showing that many of former President Clinton's gains in moderating the party's image have eroded.

The release of the poll and the agenda at a Washington conference hosted by the network could mark an escalation in the growing ideological conflict among Democrats. The early stages of the race for the party's 2004 presidential nomination have reopened divisions between liberal and centrist Democrats that Clinton largely suppressed after his first term.

The Campaign for America's Future, a liberal group, drew nearly 2,000 activists to Washington this month for a conference that urged Democrats to return to liberal priorities. These include universal health-care coverage, more investment in cities and opposition to Bush's foreign and defense policies.

The New Democrat Network's agenda urges the party to stress balancing the federal budget, strengthening the military and expanding free trade -- all causes resisted by many on the left.

"We have clearly not come up with a set of agenda points and a governing agenda that is better than what Bush is offering right now, and we are kidding ourselves if we think we have," said Simon Rosenberg, the network's president.

Founded in 1996, the group has put much of its effort into raising money through its political action committee for Democrats sympathetic to Clinton's efforts to move the party toward the center. The group raised about $6.8 million in the 2002 election. Most of those it has helped are active in the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist group Clinton once headed.

With today's conference, the network will launch an effort to expand its role into shaping the Democratic message and campaign strategy.

"Republicans have invested in building a much more serious infrastructure than we have on our side," Rosenberg said. "Democrats need to have a strategic plan that creates a long-term answer to the conservative challenge."

As part of its new approach, Rosenberg said the group will establish an "advocacy fund" to reach the public directly through media advertising.

Initially, the advertising is likely to focus on the agenda the group hopes will become a rallying point for centrist Democrats. It is modeled on the "Contract with America" that House Republicans used as an organizing tool in the 1994 midterm campaign that culminated in the GOP's takeover of the House and Senate.

The network's document focuses more on broad goals than specific policies. On national security, it endorses aggressive policies -- such as a commitment to "ensure that America's military is the strongest, most agile, and best-equipped in the world" -- that many on the left will likely see as too belligerent.

On domestic issues, the group's call for a balanced budget, "a market-based" plan for providing prescription drug coverage for seniors and overall reform of Medicare also are likely to raise red flags on the left.

Still, the agenda postpones many potential conflicts by avoiding specific policies and defining the party goals in terms broad enough that most Democrats could support. And on some social issues, the agenda underscores the breadth of the Democratic consensus on party priorities -- such as preserving abortion rights and emphasizing renewable energy and environmental protection.

The national poll the group will release was conducted by Mark Penn, who polled for the White House in Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign and now is working for the presidential campaign of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut.

The poll found that Bush was favored, 45% to 36%, over an unnamed Democrat when voters were asked who they would prefer in next year's election.

It also showed the electorate reverting to many of the patterns that defined U.S. politics in the 25 years before Clinton won the presidency in 1992 -- a period when Republicans dominated the White House. For instance, the survey found Bush reestablishing overwhelming leads among white men and married voters.

Those polled gave Democrats the edge on such attributes as compassion and fairness, and associated the party with such domestic causes as "fighting for the regular guy" and improving public schools. But Republicans had the advantage on such matters as promoting stronger families and displaying leadership.

"There's no question the images of the parties have slipped back to those pre-Clinton images, and the Democratic Party hasn't been showing the kind of strength that it needs to, particularly in times when international affairs and terrorism became more important," Penn said.

A separate survey to be released at today's conference gauged attitudes among Latino voters. The survey, conducted by Sergio Bendixen, found signs that Latino voters were growing disillusioned with Bush, in part because of a belief the president has not kept his promises on immigration reform. Bendixen is the president of Bendixen and Associates, a Florida-based survey and consulting group that focuses on the Latino population.

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