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DEMOCRATS' HARSH NEW WORLD

John F. Kerry's loss to President Bush and setbacks in the House and Senate leave the Democratic Party looking at a troubling future.

Democrats across the country awoke from last week's election to a reality more troubling than just losing the White House.

This was not just a defeat for John F. Kerry. Party leaders and pundits agreed it was a defeat that showed growing Democratic weakness in what once had been the party's heartland and new weakness among some of its longtime core supporters.

"We're the 'out' party now," Ed Kilgore, policy director of the centrist Democratic Leadership Conference, said on his Web log. "Republicans now control every nook and cranny of the federal government they still pretend they are fighting."

For proof that the Democrats face big problems, witness these facts:

President Bush became the first president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936 to be re-elected while his party gained seats in the House and the Senate.

The Democratic Party lost all five open Senate seats it was defending in the South along with the two competitive Senate races in the Midwest.

While Democrats struggle to compete in the Plains states and the South, the Republicans control the governorships of the four largest states, including solidly Democratic New York and California and marginally Democratic Florida.

The party's support among key longtime constituencies -- such as women, Hispanics, Catholics and seniors -- appears to be slipping.

The problem, many academics and Democratic politicians agree, is the party's urban focus. Both on economic and values issues, the party has plenty to offer urban centers and liberal enclaves but comparatively little to offer the heartland.

"The party has to recognize that it just can't count on its urban base," said Herbert B. Asher, a political scientist at Ohio State University. "The Democrats did a spectacular job turning out their urban base -- and it wasn't enough."

Moreover, the party's urban focus leaves it marginally competitive elsewhere. In fact, you could drive from Miami to Phoenix to Boise, Idaho, to Arlington, Va. and cross only one state -- Illinois -- that Kerry won.

While Republicans have long dominated the heartland, making such a drive would not have been so easy a few years earlier. Even in the 1988 presidential race, which Michael Dukakis lost to George H.W. Bush in a landslide, you would have had to cross three Dukakis states on that drive.

A paragon of urban Democratic politics, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, acknowledged the party's problem.

"One of its challenges as a party is to become a 50-state party, not a 17-state Electoral College party," Jackson said on National Public Radio last week.

Democrats also face a challenge in holding onto their traditional supporters. In that regard, Tuesday's election provided several troubling signs.

While Kerry won among women voters, exit polling data shows Bush increased his share of the women's vote by 5 percentage points.

The president boosted his share of the senior vote by the same margin and won it.

He also gained 5 percentage points among Catholics and 9 points among Hispanics, a fast-growing group that Democrats have been counting on to lead them back to majority status.

While political analysts say that Bush's increasing support among women might have been tied to fears of terrorism, they say cultural issues explain his gains among seniors, Catholics and Hispanics.

"Sen. Kerry was not connecting with Latino voters, primarily because he was focusing his Latino campaign on liberal themes that alienated those independent-minded and conservative Democrats," said Robert Deposada, president of the Latino Coalition, which endorsed Bush.

The party's lack of appeal in Middle America and its new struggles in parts of its base have one thing in common, political pros said.

Class is no longer the dividing line between the parties.

"The country is now divided on the basis of culture," Mark Mellman, Kerry's pollster, told Newhouse News Service last week.

That divide is complex, even on the signature issues of abortion and gay rights.

Oddly, exit polling indicates that the nation is more in tune with the Democrats on those issues than it is with the Republicans. Some 55 percent of voters surveyed said they favored abortion rights. And 60 percent said they favored either gay marriage or civil unions for homosexual couples.

Yet a plurality of voters named "moral values" as the top issue in the race. A plurality of voters also favored some restrictions on abortion, and far more voters favored civil unions than favor gay marriage.

To those moderate voters, Kerry probably seemed too extreme, analysts said, perhaps because he opposes a ban on partial-birth abortions as well as the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.

"You can be pro-choice and still address the number of abortions," said Asher of Ohio State.

Similarly, Kerry said he was against gay marriage but never made a strong case against it or explained why civil unions might be an acceptable compromise.

"From my perspective, I said all along: if there is an issue that's going to kill us, it's going to be that," said former Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda. "Marriage is just a word, but it's also a symbol, it carries a meaning, and it's important."

While largely avoiding the abortion and gay marriage issues, Kerry also continued the Democratic Party's long-standing love-in with Hollywood.

He met with Steven Spielberg and appeared at a fund-raiser with actress Whoopie Goldberg, who unhelpfully said that Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards, "looks like he's 18."

That, combined with Kerry's stolid New England personality and vast personal wealth, may have alienated voters who aren't enthused with what they perceive as the elitism of the East and West coasts.

One top Democratic insider said that more moderate candidates, like Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut or Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, might have appealed more to those voters.

Evangelical Christians turned out in droves to support Bush, thanks to a Republican get-out-the-vote effort. But Kerry's reluctance to speak out on matters of faith also hurt him, said Robert D. McClure, a political scientist at Syracuse University.

"The Democrats need to nominate somebody who carries a Bible in his hand comfortably," McClure said. The last two Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, did.

With such images in mind, many Democrats see the seeds of their party's comeback in the ashes of Tuesday's election results.

Democrats need to stick to their principles of economic and social justice and convince voters that they, too, are moral issues, LaFalce said.

"I think the Democratic Party has to be much more aggressive. In terms of strategy, the Republicans beat us every time," said Brian Higgins, the Buffalo Democrat who appears to have won the congressional seat being vacated by Rep. Jack F. Quinn, R-Hamburg.

Democrats noted that Bush still faces mammoth problems in Iraq, which could benefit their party in the long run.

And Bush could also create big trouble for himself with his promised effort to partially privatize Social Security. Republican leaders on Capitol Hill aren't overly enthused with that idea, fearing a political backlash, said David C. John, a Social Security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Looking out at that political landscape, the Democratic minority leader in the House, Nancy Pelosi, isn't pessimistic.

"Quite frankly, I think the table is set for us in the next election," Pelosi, D-Calif., told Associated Press last week. "We have lost just about everything that we can lose."

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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