NEW ORLEANS—Democrats cast themselves Saturday as the party that will change the nation's unpopular course—but hedged on precisely how they would do it.
The Democratic National Committee used a three-day meeting to unveil a six-point statement labeled as the party's vision for governing—yet it avoided such thorny issues as Iraq or immigration. And party leaders put off further discussion of a Democratic plan for Iraq until later this year—and then it will be done in private, perhaps after the November election for control of Congress.
Throughout the strategy meeting, Democrats said they were confident that anger at President Bush puts them in position to win control of Congress this November. But most insisted the party still must close the sale with skeptical voters.
"The wheels have come off the Bush bus. People are mad," said New Hampshire Democratic Party chairwoman Kathleen Sullivan. "We could win Congress. But Democrats need to explain why we can do a better job."
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean signaled that he thought anger at Bush, which fueled much of his eventually unsuccessful 2004 presidential campaign, would usher his party into power.
"This is a searing, burning issue," Dean said after doing some volunteer work in a part of New Orleans devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
"I think it's going to cost George Bush his legacy and it's going to cost the Republicans the House and maybe the Senate, and maybe very well the presidency in the next election."
Democrats hoped the backdrop of New Orleans would serve as a fresh reminder of the failures of the federal government under Republican rule.
None blamed the Democrats who ran the city or state. Democratic leaders Saturday gave standing ovations to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco. Dean called her the "most admired governor" in the country.
While not on the agenda, Iraq was raised in a meeting Dean had with state party officials on Friday.
Washington State Party chairman Dwight Pelz told Dean that the party's "murkiness" on Iraq was causing problems with the rank-and-file and that tension between activists and the national party leadership in Washington could sap their energy this fall.
"I understand it's always better to have a lot of passion around an election," Dean said. "But what more passion could we possibly invoke than stopping George Bush from continuing to destroy the country?"
Responded Pelz: ``It's not working."
Dean said wanted to talk more about finding a consensus, but later this year and behind closed doors.
"I do not want to air our differences of opinion in front of the esteemed fourth estate. This is a serious discussion . . . we're going to find a way to do that in a private setting."
Aides said the meeting had not been scheduled, and that they did not know if it would happen before or after the November elections.
"The Democratic Party is continuing to evolve on Iraq . . . There is much we have in common," Dean said. "While we don't have an ironclad timetable, we're heading in the right direction."
The party blueprint, called "The Democratic Vision," will be rolled out in a national door knocking campaign on April 29.
_Honest and open government;
_Economic prosperity and educational excellence;
_Expanded health care;
It was designed by Congressional Democrats and party officials after research that involved two waves of focus groups, one late last year and the other last February.
Deliberately vague, party aides said it was more principles than detailed policy proposals.
"They want a message everyone can agree to talk about. So they're starting with the lowest common denominator," said a Democratic consultant who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the agenda.
State party officials welcomed the national agenda, though some said they would make changes to it in their own states.
"It's a good concise statement," said Jackie Stevenson, a member of the national committee from Minnesota. She added that even with its tested language, her state party was planning to change some of the wording. She said other states planned changes as well.
"It's a theme the party stands for," said Alabama state party chairman Joe Turnham. "Some people will subtract a bullet. Some will add a bullet. We'll add something on the need for sacrifice."
Dean himself added another 6 promises in a speech Saturday, including creating a "living wage," banning all lobbyist-financed travel in Congress, changing the new Medicare prescription drug benefit, and enacting all the recommendations of the Sept. 11 terrorist commission.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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