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Congress' freshman Democrats come from a moderate base

WASHINGTON—She's pro-gun rights, pro-death penalty and wary of big government waste.

Meet Claire McCaskill, the senator-elect from the generally conservative state of Missouri. She's a Democrat.

Like many of her freshman Democratic colleagues in the Senate and the House of Representatives, McCaskill defies the long-standing stereotype of Democrats as the party of San Francisco liberals. Consider:

_Sen.-elect Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, calmly and resolutely against abortion rights.

_Sen.-elect Jon Tester of Montana, a flat-topped farmer and butcher who loves his guns.

_Sen.-elect Jim Webb of Virginia, a virtual compendium of alpha-male machismo who wore combat boots on the campaign trail and served as President Reagan's secretary of the Navy.

_In the House, freshman Democrats include Heath Shuler of North Carolina, a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

_All three new Democrats from Indiana oppose abortion.

Such candidates helped make winning possible for Democrats, ending 12 years as the minority party in the House. But they could make governing hard for Democratic leaders who are trying to push the party's agenda.

"My mandate is to be independent," McCaskill said at a news conference after winning her seat. "That's what I campaigned on, that I would stand up to anyone and anything, including my own party, to try to accomplish something."

McCaskill threatened to "knock some heads" if Democrats develop a post-election "swagger."

Pat Toomey, the president of the Club for Growth, a conservative group, predicts that House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., "is going to find it hard to hold that caucus together."

"It is an ideologically very diverse caucus and the extremes are very, very far apart," Toomey said. "So yeah, I think she's gonna find she's got a tough job ahead."

To be sure, the newly elected Democrats share key principles with their more traditionally liberal colleagues, mainly a concern for economic justice as Democrats define it, such as raising the minimum wage and protecting entitlement programs, especially Social Security. Most support abortion rights.

But they were different enough from stereotypical Democrats such as Pelosi and Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy that Republican efforts to tar them as liberals weren't effective.

Voters "were looking for people who would be independent voices for the places they live, not candidates who believe one person's version of the Democratic mantra," said Bill Burton, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Many new congressional Democrats "promised they won't raise our taxes, demanded fiscal responsibility and attacked their GOP opponents for their participation in the spending binge that has characterized Washington in recent years," said David Keene, the chairman of the American Conservative Union. "If these candidates were sincere, Republicans should be able to work with them."

Pelosi, for instance, already is hearing sniping from centrist "Blue Dog" Democrats about the liberal bent of some of her likely House committee chairmen, said Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland political science professor and former adviser to Jesse Jackson.

"They are communicating with Nancy Pelosi right now and are, in effect, extracting promises from her that she will curtail the liberal bent," Walters said. "The Democratic caucus will be more fractious than normal."

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., a leading House centrist, said he expected the Democratic congressional leadership to focus on the doable and stay away from potentially divisive issues such as flag burning, abortion or gun control.

"People recognize the only thing worse than (losing) Tuesday will be winning and holding it (Congress) for only two years," Thompson said. "Nancy Pelosi is smart. She does not want to be a one-term speaker."

Some conservatives hope that liberals do drive the agenda.

"If they go ahead and get free run to do what they'd like to do, I think it creates a great opportunity for the Republican nominee in `08, because the American people are going to find that these guys in the House—again, if they have their way—are way out of step with the American people," Toomey said.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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