Can Democrats heal primary wounds, beat McCain?

SIKESTON, Mo. — Tracy Wilkerson, an electrical lineman, sums up the Democratic Party's problem in a nutshell. "After eight years of having it taken away from you, it's hard to be enthusiastic about anything in politics," he said.

Democrats are still seething about 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote but lost to George W. Bush after a Supreme Court ruling. They're still irked, too, about 2004, when many think that their nominee John Kerry should have won at a time when the nation was split over whether Bush was managing the Iraq war wisely.

On paper, everything points to a big Democratic rebound in 2008. An April Opinion Research Corp. poll found that 56 percent of those surveyed had favorable opinions of the party. President Bush's approval numbers, as well as the percentages of Americans who think the country is on the right track, have hit historic lows.

The nation is reeling from a sluggish economy and mired in a deeply unpopular war, two factors that usually have turned voters away from the incumbent White House party. In addition, the presumptive Republican nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, who'll turn 72 in August, is the oldest major party candidate ever to seek a first White House term.

Still, Democrats enter the general election less than confident that their party can heal the wounds of the long and divisive primary battle between Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Clinton of New York in time to defeat McCain.

Part of the concern stems from what's been evident in primaries throughout the winter and spring. Obama routinely won big majorities of votes from black people, younger people and higher income voters.

Clinton got white conservatives and women over 50, however, and exit polls in state after state found that big chunks of her backers are inclined to support McCain in November.

Obama, they said, is too liberal and too inexperienced.

"My big objection is that Obama just doesn't have enough preparation," said H.H. Townsend, a former New Madrid, Mo., county treasurer. "I just don't know what I'll do" in November.

What the party must do, the experts said, is demonstrate quickly and often that it understands the needs of the Clinton constituency.

"It has to prove it can adopt policies beneficial to the interests of rural America, such as health care," said Rep. Zack Space, D-Ohio.

Erwin Porter, a steelworker and party activist in Missouri, knows he'll have a problem selling the party.

"I have to get away from the wedge issues," he said, and de-emphasize guns, abortion and other issues on which people tag Democrats as too liberal.

Instead, he said, "We have to emphasize the true differences," notably on the Iraq war and the economy. Democrats, for instance, want to give more tax breaks to middle- and lower-income workers, while Republicans are more inclined to make Bush's tax cuts permanent.

Three factors will be crucial to whether people such as Porter can make the sale:

  • The Democrats' convention Aug. 25-28 and the coverage leading up to it. If readers and viewers are bombarded with a summer full of reporting about feuds and conflict, the image of a party in disarray could be jarring.
  • Such images would follow a concept that marketers often use to sell a product.

    "Things get into your brain through frequency and reach," said Kenn Venit, a television news and media consultant.

  • Clinton. If she embraces Obama and stumps vigorously for him and the party this summer and fall, her supporters probably will rally.
  • Former U.S. Rep. Barbara Kennelly, D-Conn., said she thought that Clinton would be an enthusiastic solder. "She'll be there. All her supporters will be there," she said. "They're pros."

  • The vice presidential choice. Traditionally, popular choices mean a spirited final convention day and momentum heading into the fall.
  • Wilkerson will be watching closely. "Experience is an issue, and one thing that's going to influence me is the running mates," he said. "But I am a Democratic Party man."

    If some Democrats, such as Wilkerson, are demoralized by past defeats, others think that memories of 2000 and 2004 will motivate the party faithful in an extraordinary way and allow the wounds from the Obama-Clinton duel to heal quickly.

    "The frustration after what happened in 2000 and 2004 is very deep-rooted," Kennelly said. "We're not going to let it happen again."