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Mirage of Democrats' Unity

In the birthplace of the American Revolution, conventioneering Democrats are about to fire what they hope will be a political shot heard round the world.

In many ways, they are in a strong formation to do that.

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Stoked by their deep anti-Bush sentiment - it was Jimmy Carter's comment about the current administration's "mistakes and miscalculations" that brought delegates to their feet on opening night - Democrats are unusually united.

Organizationally too, they're in rare form. Out of debt, and with $65 million in the bank, a new digitally advanced headquarters, and a database of 170 million voters, the party is secure for the next 25 years, its chairman, Terry McAuliffe, confidently predicts.

But is its future really so bright?

Across the country and over time, Democrats have hardly displayed the electable firepower they're brandishing in Boston. They control neither the Congress, the White House, nor the majority of the nation's state legislatures and governorships. Since the 1950s, nearly one in six Democrats has abandoned the party, many of them white males. Republican membership, meanwhile, has remained more or less the same.

Neither is the Democrats' new- found unity a sure thing. The polished veneer of their uncharacteristically hawkish 2004 party platform, for instance, has covered over the rough plywood of the anti-Iraq war majority, which wants a quick pullout. Will the unity glue hold these peace Democrats in place after the election?

It may be that the un-Bush message with its energizing effect is enough to propel John Kerry into the White House. But the party shouldn't count on that, and needs to emerge from this week's convention with a positive message and clear vision for voters.

From the podium, Democratic leaders past and present are working to do that, casting the reserved Vietnam war hero as a man of strength and wisdom. On Monday night, Bill Clinton sought to portray Mr. Kerry as a restorer of the two-term president's "new Democrat" approach - a moderate, broadly appealing politician who is tough on crime, fiscally disciplined, understanding of people's health and job needs, and mindful of America's friends in the world.

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Yet, an increasingly vociferous and financially powerful segment of the party is not convinced the "new Democrat" legacy of Mr. Clinton will reignite the party. It was, after all, under the moderation model that the Democrats lost control of Congress and the White House.

Certain Democrats working outside the party are now seeking to build a kind of "vast left-wing conspiracy" to fight Republicans, and rich donors are pouring big money into more liberal, ideological, and independent organizations like MoveOn.org and America Coming Together.

If Kerry wins, it's hard to imagine these groups won't seek to dissuade him from a "new Democrat" course (if indeed, he follows such a course). And if he loses, party unity could quickly dissolve. Either way, Democratic soul- searching is not over.