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Hopeful Liberals See Signs Of a Political Comeback
As Bush's Ratings Decline, Left Draws Money, Support; A Victory in South Dakota

June 3, 2004; Page A1

WASHINGTON -- Democrats were crowing yesterday about snatching a U.S. House seat in South Dakota from Republicans. But to 2,000 liberal warriors gathering for a conference here called "Take Back America," the result is just a tiny rumbling of something much bigger.

On the defensive for more than a generation, the American left is seeing signs of political revival. Recent polls show more Americans are calling themselves "liberal" -- a term that had been considered something of an epithet -- and fewer are identifying themselves as "conservative." Liberal groups, from the National Organization for Women to Moveon.org, are enjoying a big fund-raising surge. The flagship publication of the left, the Nation, claims to have captured the highest circulation of any weekly political magazine.

"The plates have all moved," argues Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. The combination of hostility toward President Bush, anxiety about the war in Iraq and concerns about tax cuts and other economic issues "make it possible for something fundamental to happen in this election," he says.

Republican strategists say liberals are delusional. Since Republicans seized Congress in 1994, Democratic predictions that they would recapture control have repeatedly proved false.

Still, the proportion of Americans calling themselves "liberal" edged up to 21% in Mr. Greenberg's May poll from 16% a month earlier. Self-identified "conservatives" dropped to 37% from 41%. Similarly, last month's Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed 42% of voters identifying themselves as Democrats, compared with 39% who say they are Republicans. Two years earlier, Republicans had a 37%-to-36% edge.

The same Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed Mr. Bush's job approval rating at 47%, the lowest of his presidency.

Liberal organizations devoted to feminist, labor and environmental causes are displaying unusual coordination in hopes of electing John Kerry. Sen. Kerry drew $31 million in donations in April, doubling the take of the President Bush, as liberal groups like Moveon.org, whose antiwar membership helped fuel Howard Dean's political rise in 2003, ape the aggressive funding and recruitment tactics that helped Republicans mobilize grass-roots support in the 1980s.

The National Organization for Women reports daily contributions up to roughly $22,000 from $17,000 a year ago, and estimates attendance at its recent abortion-rights march on Washington was one-third higher than a similar event in 1992.

Liberals also see hope in more anecdotal evidence. Books attacking President Bush, with titles like "Worse than Watergate" and "The Politics of Truth" are selling briskly. The Nation has seen its circulation grow to 160,000 from nearly 140,000 in mid-2003 and just over 102,000 in June 2001. The latest figure exceeds the circulation of longstanding conservative stalwart National Review, which is roughly 155,500, down from about 159,000 in mid-2001.

"When the other side's in power, your people get angry," laments National Review editor Rich Lowry. Under Republican rule, "liberals have become more muscular," argues David Corn, the Nation's Washington editor and author of "The Lies of George W. Bush."

And activists were cheered by the squeaker in South Dakota Tuesday night, in which Democrat Stephanie Herseth edged Republican Larry Diedrich in a special election. That win, like the victory of Kentucky Democrat Ben Chandler in special election earlier this year, came in a state that Mr. Bush carried in 2000 over Democratic nominee Al Gore.

To be sure, though support for Mr. Bush has been slipping in polls, Republicans retain a significant edge on national-security issues, which are likely to be a dominant issue in the November elections. Moreover, Republicans are cheered by the imminent transfer of civil authority in Iraq, which could lift a cloud over the president's re-election, as well as the economic rebound.

Some liberal activists acknowledge that Republicans could very well repeat earlier electoral successes by using cultural issues such as gay marriage to win support from working-class voters who agree with upscale Democrats on economic matters. And even if Democrats win the White House and Capitol Hill this time, there's no guarantee liberals would fare better with a President Kerry than they did under President Bill Clinton, a centrist Democrat who clashed with his party's left over trade expansion, welfare overhaul and budget balancing.

Some liberals implicitly acknowledge a continuing image problem by embracing the word "progressive" to describe their goals. Sen. Kerry, while courting liberals, has kept his distance from the term, discounting the meaning of political labels. Though the definition of "liberal" varies from issue to issue, today's liberals generally favor higher taxes and government spending to pursue public goals more than centrist Democrats, push for more aggressive remedies to perceived social injustices and voice greater skepticism about military spending and the use of U.S. military force overseas.

Liberals enjoyed many Great Society triumphs under President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. But they increasingly came to be viewed by the party's political strategists as liabilities whose policies on crime, welfare, foreign policy and taxes were at odds with the views of swing voters needed to win presidential elections. In the Reagan era, the term was such an epithet that 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis sought to redefine the election as being about "competence," not ideology. "New Democrats" like Mr. Clinton cultivated a more business-friendly centrism.

But Mr. Bush's term has reinforced the polarization of competing political camps, sending prominent centrists at organizations like the Democratic Leadership Council into alliance with liberals they once disdained. After voting repeatedly for free-trade deals and to authorize action against Saddam Hussein, Mr. Kerry turned to criticizing those deals and blasting Mr. Bush's Iraq policies in his Democratic primary competition against Mr. Dean. Liberals argue that the president's unyielding pursuit of regime change in Baghdad and tax cuts at home have provided a clear demonstration of conservative ideas whose results, at the moment at least, are not inspiring widespread public confidence.

"They have left us weaker, more indebted, more divided, more isolated and far less secure," asserts Robert Borosage, president of the labor-funded group, Campaign for America's Future. "Instead of a defensive fight, we now have the possibility of driving the debate."

Mr. Borosage, once a top aide to Jesse Jackson's 1988 presidential bid, kicked off yesterday's "Take Back America" conference at a hotel near Washington's downtown. Today, participants will hear from Mr. Dean, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and billionaire money-manager George Soros, now a major financier of liberal causes.

In recent years, Republicans have held a big lead among white male voters. But changing demography has reduced the clout of white men and swelled the importance of Hispanics who lean against Republicans. That shift, along with changing mores that favor cultural tolerance, led authors John Judis and Ruy Teixeira two years ago to write "The Emerging Democratic Majority."

In 2002, Republicans were able to capitalize on their traditional advantage in national-security matters to score surprising gains in the midterm election. But liberals argue that Mr. Bush's troubles in Iraq have given the left a big opening this year.

During the campaign, Mr. Borosage says, the vast majority of liberals will give Mr. Kerry wide political maneuvering room and resist the temptation to gravitate toward independent candidate Ralph Nader, now widely blamed on the left for placing Mr. Bush in the White House. But in January 2005, he adds, a President Kerry "will find himself facing an emboldened, mobilized, and increasingly self-confident progressive movement that will be putting forward a bolder agenda than he imagines."

Indeed, they are emboldened not just by Mr. Kerry's competitive national standing against Mr. Bush, but also by surveys showing majorities of Americans saying the nation is headed in the wrong direction. In several public surveys, Democrats have moved ahead of Republicans when voters are asked which party should control Congress.

The left now has rising hopes that Democrats will hold their own in contests to replace retiring Southern Democratic senators in states such as Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina, and find enough opportunities elsewhere to erase the Republicans' current 51-49 advantage. Because Congressional redistricting has left so many incumbents of both parties with safe seats, Democratic prospects of gaining the 11 seats they need to win back the House remain more uphill.

Write to John Harwood at john.harwood@wsj.com
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