PHILADELPHIA – The Democratic Party is approaching the 2004 elections in its weakest position since Franklin Roosevelt forged the enduring Democratic coalition 70 years ago, a prominent pollster warned Monday.

The party still has solid support from the core of Roosevelt’s coalition – union members, minorities and the working poor – said pollster Mark Penn. It also enjoys solid support from gays and Hispanics, the nation’s fastest-growing minority.

But less than one-third of Americans now consider themselves Democrats, down from 49 percent at their peak in 1958. And Democrats lag well behind Republicans among other growing groups of voters whose loyalties swing back and forth between parties and who hold the key to close elections – including suburbanites, professionals and middle-class families with children. That leaves the party in a poor position to build the new coalition it needs to beat President Bush and build an enduring majority in an evenly divided country.

“In terms of the percentage of voters who identify themselves as Democrats, the Democratic Party is currently in its weakest position since the dawn of the New Deal,” Penn told a gathering of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of centrist Democrats. “Exciting the Democratic base alone will not bring enough voters into the Democratic fold.”

Penn, who was President Clinton’s pollster, revealed his findings at a time when centrists are again battling liberals for dominance within the Democratic Party. Centrists fear that catering to the party’s base with anti-war talk and “big government” proposals for health care will turn off other voters.

Already, said DLC founder Al From, the party is reviving an unwelcome image as the pre-Clinton party of “tax-and-spend” big government, weak on defense and captive to special interests. That image cost the party three straight presidential elections in the 1980s, From said.

“The Democratic Party is in danger of being taken over by the far left,” said Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., chairman of the DLC.

One key problem, Penn and others said, is that Democrats are perceived as catering to a political base that is losing its electoral clout in a changing country. When likely voters are asked which party they prefer, Democrats still hold an edge among many groups. Union members and gays prefer Democrats over Republicans by 43 percentage points, and African-Americans and the working poor do by 41 percentage points, Penn found.

But Republicans have an edge of 15 percentage points among suburban voters, 21 percentage points among professionals, and 29 percentage points among white-collar workers.

The Penn poll of 1,225 likely 2004 voters was conducted June 29-July 1 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.

“The decline of manufacturing jobs and the shift from cities to suburbs and exurbs, and the dramatic increases in college education and white collar and professional jobs, do not favor the Democrats,” Penn said.

The Republican advantage increases as people move up the economic ladder. Among whites, Democrats are favored only among those who make less than $20,000 a year. The Republican edge grows with income, reaching 66 percentage points among whites making more than $150,000 a year.

Democrats also maintain strength among single voters, but once families have children, they tend to turn Republican, Penn said.

And while Democrats are more often favored on issues such as poverty, the environment and health care, voters prefer Republicans on terrorism and national security.

Despite their party’s weaknesses, centrist Democrats believe Bush can be defeated next year if the party coalesces around a centrist candidate who is strong on defense and offers an agenda to spark the economy. Anxieties about the war in Iraq and the economy have hurt Bush’s standing; Penn’s survey found that 48 percent of likely voters believe Bush deserves re-election, while 42 percent believe someone else should be elected.

Sensing opportunity, many Democrats at the DLC conference said they believe there is plenty of time for the party to settle its internal debate and find a new leader before voters make up their minds for 2004. Polls show none of the nine Democratic presidential candidates is emerging as a frontrunner, leaving the party without a single voice for now to counter Bush.

“It’s still early,” said Jennifer Mann, a state representative from Allentown, Pa. “Most people in my district aren’t getting up every morning wondering what’s happening in the presidential race. … I know there is a degree of impatience. People are anxious for someone to emerge. But when that person does emerge, people will rally behind them.”

(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-07-28-03 1653EDT

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