KICKING WHILE THEY'RE DOWN

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It's the unanswered political question of 2005: Where are the Democrats?

Following the party's 2004 electoral defeat and 2005 legislative losses on issues as diverse as energy policy, gun control and free trade, some political observers say the Democrats are missing potential marketing opportunities to convert red states to blue.

"Public confidence in President Bush and Republicans is plummeting, but the Democrats are clearly not making the sale," said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute. "If you look at the polls, people don't see where the Democrats stand."

Sure, there has been a big tactical effort to fight Social Security changes proposed by Mr. Bush and some small ethics pushes aimed at showing up Republicans. But the Democrats, accustomed to a marketing model heavily focused on issues in election years, are still wary of turning those fights-and others, like the Bush administration limits on stem-cell research-into broader off-year marketing campaigns to lure crossover voters.

"The Democrats can achieve major gains ... if the party moves decisively to a new stage of engagement," said a recent report from the Democracy Corps, a group headed by party advisers James Carville, Robert Shrum and pollster Stanley Greenberg. "They must pose sharp choices-ones that define the Democrats ... and in every battle make the Democrats the instrument for reforming and changing Washington."

A Democratic National Party spokesman would not comment, saying "we are not going to discuss strategy." But insiders and observers said a major stumbling block is disagreement over the effectiveness of ads so far away from an election and whether funding is better spent during election years.

South Carolina Democratic Chairman Joe Erwin, who also heads the state's biggest ad agency, Erwin-Penland, is embracing an off-year approach with an unusual 12-week radio campaign breaking after Labor Day and focused mostly on state issues.

ONE-ON-ONE

"Advertising is a powerful instrument when used wisely, and too often we let other people define us," he said. "When we get a chance to be one-on-one with people and talk about the philosophy [behind] being a Democrat ... it can put people at ease." Noting that the national Democratic party should at least test similar campaigns elsewhere, he said, "our thought is why not soften the beachhead so that when the candidates are out there [next year], they get a shot."

Simon Rosenberg, president-founder of the New Democratic Network, also suggests more year-round marketing efforts could be warranted, though he conceded that raising funds could be an issue. "One of the greatest challenges Democrats face is [they focus on] what can work three months before the election instead of what can change people's [perceptions] incrementally over time."

Others suggest that the problem isn't whether the Democrats advertise, but what message they convey. "Band-Aids when they need a major operation," scoffed George Lakoff, a University of California linguistics professor who argues in his influential book, "Don't Think of an Elephant."

"What Republicans have discovered is that values are central to how people vote. People vote on their identities," said Mr. Lakoff, noting that the Democrats are "thinking short-term and need to be thinking long-term, filling in the conceptual gaps and learning how to express [their values] to the public."

Democratic ad experts also suggest that negativity cost the party voters. "I don't think the rural people left us. We left them," said Roy Spence, founder and president of GSD&M, a close friend of President Clinton and active in Democratic campaigns. "Democrats have always been architects and builders, not people who are tearing down things, and we have become dangerously negative."

"From a heartland perspective, we need to be firm and direct with a program that looks forward,"' said Mr. Spence.

Karl Agne, a Democratic consultant and senior adviser to the Democracy Corps, said one key is a unified voice: "It won't work as long as every voice in every [Democrat appearing] on a Sunday talk show is advancing a different agenda."

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