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Democrats Seek Identity In GOP-Controlled West

Back in the days of FDR and the New Deal, America's mountain West was Democrat to the core.

Teeming with hearty pioneers and social outcasts from the East, the region's patchwork of residents was bound to railroads, ranching, and mining - making for strong allegiances to labor.

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But those are just fond memories for Democrats in today's West. Heavy industry has taken a back seat to the service sector, and industry has moved into the Republican realm as Democrats have stood up for industry-hostile environmental issues.

Indeed, as Democrats nationwide struggle to find an identity in today's relatively conservative political currents, the challenge facing them in the mountain West is particularly steep. Faced with conservative values and a deeply rooted distrust of big government, they are now having to rethink many of their most basic tenets. And this reshaping could reverberate in Washington, as the national party also seeks to find answers to growing questions.

Of five mountain states - Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, and Idaho - only Colorado has a Democratic governor. Four times as many congressional delegations are Republican than Democrat, and state legislatures are dominated more than 2-to-1 by the GOP. In fact, the last time Utah - the most Republican state in the nation - voted for a Democratic president was in 1964, when it favored Lyndon Johnson.

No wonder Democrats are planning a power summit to fight the tide. On Jan. 24, Democrats from around the region will gather in Salt Lake City to broadcast their message and coalesce into a voting bloc they hope will make the nation take notice.

Finding their message

The Democratic message, however, has become a subject of intense controversy since the Republican sweep of Congress in 1994. Hot-point issues such as gay rights, abortion, and the death penalty have obscured other key ideas on the party platform and burned Democrats at the polls.

"We need to aggressively pitch our ideology," says Salt Lake County Democratic chairman Joseph Hatch. "But I do not believe we will ever be in the majority if our only issue is gay rights. It's just not a priority with most people."

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Bob Ream, Democratic state chair in Montana, saw a bill on gay rights crash and burn in the Legislature. Since 1991, the number of Democrats in Montana's legislature has been almost halved, from 61 to 33. In its previous session, the Legislature actually turned down federal money for Goals 2000, a United States education initiative, and barely passed another bill accepting federal funds for its welfare program.

"The attitude is, if it's federal money, we don't want it," says Mr. Ream. "The Republicans have made liberal a dirty word. We need a message that will be a moderate one, dealing with basic human values."

Just how moderate the message should be is the issue. Mr. Hatch worries that some Democrats are parroting conservative lines in an effort to appeal to the Republican majority. And Democrats in the mountain West are trying to better understand who their natural constituency is.

For instance, Democrats tend to do best in urban areas, but the mountain West is actually more highly urbanized than any other region in the US. Ninety percent of the voters in Utah are from urban areas.

"Still, we perceive ourselves to be rural," Mr. Hatch says. "You have the real urban cowboy."

Deer hunters are a good example. Most western deer hunters live in urban areas but identify with the Republican Party because of the gun-control issue. The Democrats would like that hunter to see that Republican stands on the environment threaten the hunt on a more basic level: If open space is given over to development, then hunting will be a moot point.

Where to begin?

Democrats here mostly agree that they should aim at the local level - school boards and city councils, for instance. Colorado, however, gives the Democrats a unique opportunity. The state has passed both term limits and campaign finance laws, meaning that there will be 20 open seats in a statehouse that has been Republican since the mid-1970s.

But Democratic Gov. Roy Romer will also be one of the casualties, having topped out after three terms. But as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Governor Romer actually has been spending a lot of time out of state anyway. Also, Lieutenant Gov. Gail Schoettler, a moderate with an "agrarian nature" is a Democratic favorite for governor.

Indeed, throughout the mountain West, the messenger has become as important as the message. Utah Democrats have, since '94, been looking for socially conservative, white, male Mormons for candidates. Kurt Bestor, composer of the theme song for Monday Night Football, fit that bill perfectly, but now says he probably won't run for Congress next year.

Hatch thinks it's a matter of appealing to voters in the center, people who have rejected the Democrats because of their views on social issues. "We need to get a foot in the door," he says.

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