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Dixiecrat 'Defection' Leaves GOP Strong, Democrats Guessing

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THEY are the tattered remnants of a flank that sustained heavy losses in the last elections.

Though hit hard by defeat, at first only a few defiantly rejected their party leaders or toyed with defection. But not anymore.

In a packed room at the end of a maze of painted brick corridors of the Capitol, 23 conservative Democrats -- most from the South -- openly broke ranks with their party on Tuesday and announced the formation of a policymaking group called, simply, the Coalition.

There are enough moderate and conservative Democrats in the House to triple the size of this group if they all joined. As a united, organized force, they could prove devastating to a Democratic Party that still seems to be searching for its soul.

As a bloc, centrist Democrats are a double-edged sword, perhaps ensuring the success of the Republican agenda, in some form, and undermining the veto just when President Clinton seems to have discovered it.

They have already helped the GOP pass a moderate version of the balanced budget amendment. And after many fellow conservative Democrats fell in November, few are prepared to go to the mat for the president.

''In 1992, [Clinton], as the principal agenda-setter, pulled southern Democrats to the left,'' observes John Cogan, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and co-author of a recent study of the November election results.

''But the split [within the Democratic Party] has widened significantly in the last two years, and conservative Democrats may be closer in policy preference to the Republicans,'' he says.

Members of the Coalition squirm when asked if their movement signals a deep rift in the Democratic Party. They claim a bipartisan spirit and have opened their club to all (no Republicans have joined yet).

But they are clearly dissatisfied with the direction of their own party, and the new organization gives them a vehicle for acting as a cohesive, moderate influence on social and economic policy at a time when many Republicans and Democrats have shifted to the extremes.

''We needed to be more forceful in pushing our issues,'' say Rep. Gary Condit (D) of California, a Coalition co-chairman. ''Our intention is to force the Democratic Caucus to deal with us and our issues.''

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