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Fresh off their annual retreat to plot election-year strategy, House Democrats for the first time in recent months believe they have a legitimate shot at narrowing the margin of their minority, sources throughout the Caucus indicate.

Senior-level Democratic aides said Monday the Caucus members are not walking away from the three-day session convinced they can regain a House majority in 2004, but feel momentum is turning in their favor. House Democrats, aides said, left the conference planning to focus their election-year message on Republicans’ lack of credibility on core issues of the economy and the war in Iraq, as well as the GOP pushing the “wrong priorities.”

“We’re in the game now,” said one leadership aide. “That’s a big difference from a couple of months ago. Everything is in place for us to do very well. The ground is starting to shift around these Republicans, and we know it.”

With 205 members of their Caucus, Democrats need to pick up 13 seats to win back the majority. Given the current playing field, the minority party would have to win at least three quarters of the competitive House races to take back the chamber this cycle.

“We know how difficult it is to take back the House,” said one Democratic leadership aide, who added: “We have to believe we can do it. If we don’t believe, no one else will. We can do it.”

Even though achieving a Democratic House is highly unlikely, aides suggested attitudes have been bolstered by recent polling — some of which was presented at the retreat, held at Virginia’s Homestead Resort — showing they have the nation’s ear on key issues, can field a competitive presidential candidate and have a solid a chance at winning several key House races never before targeted.

“Members felt that this is in fact doable,” Andrew Kauders, spokesman for Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.), said of making gains this cycle. “They feel that with the right message and strategy, this is doable.”

House Democrats are banking on winning upcoming special elections in Kentucky and South Dakota. Wins in those states wouldn’t reverse the landscape, they acknowledge, but would help soften the nasty blow in the Texas redistricting case that led Rep. Ralph Hall to join the GOP and endangered as many as six Democratic incumbents.

Several well-placed Democratic sources said some Members remain concerned that too few opportunities exist for the party to win back the House, given the number of competitive districts and viable candidates. They also indicated that Members appear more optimistic this cycle about taking back the White House than the House.

“I think Members are much more excited about the president than taking back the House,” one knowledgeable Democratic aide said after the retreat. “In my opinion, things would have to break correctly in so many occasions to come out ahead.” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in her pitch to Members at the getaway, said Democrats will not make gains unless they unite around a common theme and act with a sense of urgency.

Pelosi reiterated her belief to Members that the key to gaining seats is working beyond their own re-elections and pushing a unified message, mobilizing voters at the grass roots, raising money for candidates and the party, and researching both Democratic and Republican candidates.

“Democrats definitely realize full participation in this election is critical,” said Kori Bernards, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Nobody can sit this one out.”

One Democratic leadership aide described Pelosi as “very forceful” at the conference, saying the Minority Leader emphasized that “we need all of you to be a part of this.”

Unlike in previous years, the three-day retreat focused largely on political message and strategy, rather than setting a policy agenda. Members will be called for “mini retreats” in the coming weeks to fine tune their plan for 2004, Caucus aides said.

One senior Democratic aide said Members are still frustrated that they “do have the right issues” but that hasn’t been enough to get the party “over the hump” to win seats. The same staffer said Democrats are walking away from the weekend feeling like voters are starting to see a “chink in the armor” on the Republican side.

Democrats in recent weeks have been ramping up the rhetoric against the GOP over what they call a “pattern of corruption.” The party, led by Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), took a big step in pushing for an ethics investigation into whether Republican Members tried to bribe Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) on the Nov. 22 Medicare vote.

“Republicans are playing it up like they are invincible,” said the aide. “People think they are overplaying their hand and playing it very risky in doing that.”

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