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Democrats Scratch for '92 Strategy

Befuddled party sees need to change public image on economy, defense

BRILLIANT red tulips, pink cherry blossoms, and splashy yellow forsythias are giving the nation's capital a spring glow. Yet it's still the dead of winter for Democratic leaders. Just months before the next national campaign gets under way, Democrats are befuddled by a Republican president who has wowed the country with smart bombs and shrewd politics.

George Bush's approval ratings are still stratospheric at 80 percent-plus. Voters say his party is much better equipped than Democrats to handle not only foreign policy and defense, but also the faltering economy.

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What are Democrats to do?

``I don't think there's much Democrats can do at the moment,'' says Stephen Hess at the Brookings Institution. ``When you're in a situation like this, sometimes it's best to ... make sure the party machinery is oiled and be in position in case there is a bad bounce in the economy.''

Democratic strategist Al From admits: ``It's going to be tough.'' He says that if Democrats are going to compete for the White House in 1992, they must weaken the Republican stranglehold on national security issues.

Republican pollster Neil Newhouse of the Wirthlin Group says: ``It's pretty safe to say President Bush has nailed down foreign policy [for 1992]. The more he can get out of this recession, the more invulnerable he will be.''

A March poll by the Garin/Hart Strategic Research Group, a Democratic outfit, shows the gravity of their party's dilemma.

Garin/Hart found that by an incredible 48 percent to 10 percent margin, Republicans are seen as the party better able to ensure a strong national defense. By 43 to 15, voters thought Republicans were also better able to maintain world peace.

The survey showed the GOP could best get the country out of a recession (38 percent to 21 percent), combat the drug problem (25-16), control interest rates (38-23), protect America's trade interests (35-21), and check inflation (37-20).

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It's not all roses at the Rose Garden, of course. America's unemployment rate rose to 6.8 percent in March, the highest level in over four years. The federal debt is ballooning. Auto sales are limp. Corporate profits are falling. And the Iraqi refugee crisis could cause embarrassing problems for the administration.

None of that will be enough to toss the president out of the White House next year, but Democrats say it gives them a place to start.

For example, the Garin/Hart poll shows that when it comes to reducing unemployment, Democrats are still more trusted than Republicans by a significant 2-to-1 margin. If the jobless rate keeps climbing, Democrats will have an opening.

Democrats are also hoping to chip away at Bush in several other significant - if secondary - areas where the public favors them over the Republicans: education, homelessness, health care, the environment, and possibly taxes. Trade, too, might prove a powerful issue.

``Both education and environment are good secondary issues,'' says Mr. Hess of Brookings. ``Democrats need to keep stressing those issues to remind people that they are a serious party with ideas, and that they are focusing on things that are important.''

But Hess says secondary issues won't beat Bush. ``You're not going to turn around an election on the basis of homelessness,'' he says.

Mr. From, who is president and executive director of the Democratic Leadership Council, agrees that his party needs more than a few good issues. ``We have to show that we have changed,'' he says.

He says Democrats' problems run much deeper than Bush's wartime popularity. Even before the war, From recalls that Republicans easily led Democrats on defense, crime, and the economy.

``My point is that these [negative] perceptions of Democrats on [critical] issues that drive presidential elections have been very consistent throughout most of the '80s,'' From says.

If Democrats are ever going to regain the Oval Office, they must challenge Republicans head-on in areas like defense and the economy, From suggests. ``It doesn't matter if we're up a few points on the environment if we're down 20 points on the economy.''

How can Democrats rebound?

On the economy, From says Democrats may eventually be able to challenge Republicans by developing ``a domestic program that really helps ordinary families.'' Such policies could spring from local and state Democratic leaders, he says. They are closest to American families who are struggling with problems of declining wages, inadequate schools, and poor prospects for their children's futures.

Foreign policy and defense also must be addressed. ``We need to articulate a forward-looking national security policy that recognizes the value of a strong defense,'' From says. At the moment, ``people think we don't want to defend the country, and we are not going to change that overnight.''

Meanwhile, Bush is running into his own problems as Kurds are slaughtered by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's army. From says Democrats could benefit by standing up overseas for American values, including human rights.

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