WASHINGTON – After their shellacking in November, Democratic politicians promised to do a better job of telling voters about their moral values.

But judging by a candid report last week from key party strategists, Democrats have made little progress presenting themselves in a way that would recapture rural voters or make inroads into Republican turf.

The report by the Democracy Corps, based on interviews in rural areas and Republican-leaning states, offered a further testament to the cultural divide in America that has worked to Republicans’ advantage in elections.

In response, several Democratic strategists said they are working to reverse voters’ perceptions about the party’s core values that have dogged them. The strategists say they see an array of openings caused by GOP shortcomings.

Authors of the study also pointed to openings for Democratic candidates: growing dissatisfaction with the Iraq war, unbridled health care costs and the direction of the nation in general.

But in a withering assessment of their own party, the Democratic pollsters who put out the study raised doubts about whether Democrats can cash in on GOP problems.

“As powerful as concern over these issues is, the introduction of cultural themes – specifically gay marriage, abortion and the importance of the traditional family unit and the role of religion in public life – quickly renders them almost irrelevant in terms of electoral politics on the national level,” the authors wrote.

The report notes that Democrats running in next year’s mid-term elections begin at a disadvantage with voters in rural areas and “red” states – states captured by the GOP in the presidential election. “The real problem for Democrats is that their elected officials, and by extension their entire party, are perceived as directionless and divided, standing for nothing other than their own enrichment,” the Democratic authors wrote.

The report carries weight because of its high-profile authors. The Democracy Corps’ principals are Stanley Greenberg, James Carville and Robert Shrum, top strategists for Democratic presidential candidates in recent years.

It was based on eight focus groups – gatherings of randomly selected voters – in Arkansas, Wisconsin, Kentucky and Colorado in recent weeks.

While it carries generally negative news for Democrats, the report also presents the outline of a strategy to regain power. It notes Democratic success thus far in blunting President Bush’s plan to revamp Social Security and Republicans’ disarray on issues surrounding stem cell research.

The report likens the Democrats’ problems to those of Republicans in 1994, the year the GOP regained the House for the first time since the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower by running stridently anti-Washington campaigns.

“If Democrats want 2006 to be a major change election, they have to define themselves as opposed to the mess in Washington,” said Karl Agne, a Democratic pollster and one of the authors of the study.

But Democrats may first need to deal with their own problems.

The report found that particularly among less-educated voters, cultural issues “not only superseded other priorities, they served as a proxy for many voters on those other issues.”

In other words, voters who paid little attention to the difference between the major parties on substantive issues like economic policy cast their lot with Republicans because of party leaders’ opposition to same-sex marriage and defense of Christian values in public life.

John Kenneth White, a political scientist at Catholic University of America in Washington, predicted the Democrats’ problem in his 1993 book, “The Values Divide.”

He argued last week that Democrats have blamed their candidates rather than examining honestly how the party is perceived. For that reason, he said, studies like that of the Democracy Corps’ can speed the party’s repair effort.

But White sees no easy fix. “The divisions are so great that we have two parallel universes, the red and blue states, in which people speak to those who are like-minded, thus reinforcing their divisions. The distrust on both sides is enormous, and it spreads out to all kinds of preferences, not just what you believe but what kind of coffee you drink.”

White was referring to a survey by pollster John Zogby, which found that people in Democratic areas are more inclined to drink Starbucks while Republican voters expressed a preference for Dunkin’ Donuts’ brew.

Republicans also need to worry about the cultural divide, White said. He argued that the assertiveness of the Christian Right in public policy issues combined with perceptions of GOP ineffectiveness on economic issues could drive moderates to third-party candidates.

White offered this advice to Democrats: “They have to convey to married people with families, to rural voters and to red state voters that they do, in fact, share their values.”

Democratic candidates have long fought to escape the negative connotations of the word liberal. But the Democracy Corps study suggested that they’ve had limited success, judging by the frequency critics used that word in describing Democratic positions on cultural issues.

The Center for American Progress, a Democratic-affiliated nonprofit group in Washington, is leading an effort to highlight the morality of many Democratic and liberal stances on social issues.

In Kansas City, Mo., last month, the center’s Faith and Progressive Policy Project held a forum to discuss issues surrounding science and intelligent design during the battle in Kansas over teaching evolution.

The project is putting together similar meetings, usually in Republican-leaning states, on topics related to poverty, health care and civil rights. The aim, leaders say, is assisting the work of religious leaders and demonstrating core values of progressive voters while at the same time defending the separation of church and state.

Project director Melody Barnes said that the effort wants to inject religious perspectives into controversial issues.

“You can respect separation of church and state while understanding that there’s a place in the public space for people to talk about these issues,” she said.

Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-Mo., is a member of an alliance of self-described moderates called the New Democrat Coalition. He said Democrats often are restrained when talking about their faith because of what he referred to as the need for an appropriate separation of church and state.

But he said that after soul-searching about what ails his party, he has concluded that voters want to hear elected officials share their values so they can better understand who they are.

Carnahan cited Missourian Harry S Truman as a model for Democrats trying to reach a balance in presenting their public and private beings. Truman spoke often of his faith and quoted the Bible in his first address to Congress.

“I don’t think it’s so much changing as it is being open to sharing things in a better way,” he said.

(c) 2005, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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