Democrats Struggle to Focus on 2006 Elections

As Democrats hold a spring meeting in New Orleans, the focus is meant to be on the 2006 mid-term elections. But many delegates want to talk about the 2008 presidential campaign. Representatives of several states are vying to hold presidential nominating primaries earlier in the 2008 election cycle.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. With Steve Inskeep, I'm Renee Montagne.

The Democratic National Committee is holding its spring meeting in New Orleans. Members picked up hammers and brooms and fanned out across the city to help residents clean out their damaged homes. New Orleans holds its mayoral election tomorrow, and the Democrats are trying to make the political point that the Bush administration's reconstruction efforts are inadequate.

The Democrats also heard from some states that want to be able to hold their primaries earlier. NPR's political correspondent Mara Liasson is in New Orleans.

MARA LIASSON reporting:

Up until now, those early weeks in January and February have been reserved for the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. But the party has decided to break with tradition and let other states occupy some of that sacred ground in the calendar. The idea is to get more racial and geographic diversity. New Hampshire and Iowa are overwhelmingly white. Yesterday, 10 states lined up to audition before the Democrat's Rules and Bi-laws Committee and here's a sampling of how they pled their cases.

Representative JIM CLYBURN (Democrat, South Carolina): South Carolina is a perfect laboratory for Democratic politics.

LIASSON: That was South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn. Alabama state party chair Joe Turnham's pitch was if you can make it Alabama, you can make it anywhere.

Mr. JOE TURNHAM (Democratic State Party Chair, Alabama): ...no candidate can come to Alabama and not address the hot topics, the cultural collides that we have in this nation...

LIASSON: Some states brought out their biggest guns. The governor of Arizona Janet Napolitano was there by phone.

Governor JANET NAPOLITANO (Governor of Arizona): I think Arizona really represents the future of the National Democratic Party.

LIASSON: Arizona touted its large and growing Hispanic population, so did Nevada with a slick brochure and video.

(Soundbite from video clip)

Unidentified Announcer: The fact is Nevada is a geographically, economically, culturally, and ethnically diverse state that would serve the nation and the Democratic Party well...

LIASSON: The committee members had some tough questions, such as, how would candidates get around in a state like West Virginia? The answer...

Unidentified Man: Thanks to many efforts of our great Senator Robert C. Byrd, we have a great highway system.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIASSON: West Virginia may have the transportation question covered, but as Tom Vogel, the state party's executive director, admitted, it can't really compete on diversity.

Executive Director TOM VOGEL (Executive Director, West Virginia Democratic Party): The bottom line is we're white.

LIASSON: The party will make a final decision about the calendar in a few months. Meanwhile, Democrats here in New Orleans are also busy thinking about the 2006 midterm elections, and they're even looking way ahead to 2008.

MONTAGNE: Mara Liasson joins us now from NPR's bureau in New Orleans. And Mara, what are they thinking about the 2006 elections?

LIASSON: Well, they're cautiously optimistic. They think they have a real shot at certainly picking up some seats; maybe even winning a House back. But as one Democratic committee woman said to me today, she wants to focus on 2006, but all people want to talk about is 2008.

MONTAGNE: So, what are they saying about 2008?

LIASSON: Well, there's a debate that's taking shape inside the Democratic Party, right now. And that debate goes something like this: On one side, there are supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton. She has raised the most money, she's clearly the biggest star of the party, she's very popular; but on the other side of that debate, are people who say even though she is beloved inside the party, a very competent Senator, they say that she is just too polarizing, that in a general election, they feel that she would not be the best standard bearer for the Democrats, because too many people have already made up their minds about her.

And, as one Democrat said to me today, we'd be shooting ourselves in the foot to nominate her. Those Democrats think the party would be better off with a red-state governor or someone from outside of Washington. And they point out that the only Democrats who've won the White House since John F. Kennedy were from the south or from a border state.

But, two and a half years from now, that might not be the contest. Don't forget that in 1992, Bill Clinton was all ready to run a race as a centrist Democrat against a liberal governor of New York, Mario Cuomo. And instead, he ended up in a race with the much more moderate Paul Tsongas.

MONTAGNE: Mara, thank you very much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's political correspondent Mara Liasson is in New Orleans, where the Democratic National Committee is meeting.

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