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Democrats Eye Fall ‘Contract’

Adopting a tactic their party bashed as a stunt in the watershed 1994 elections, House Democrats plan to unveil their election-year themes by rolling out a “Contract with America”-style legislative blueprint in September.

Led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Democrats are in the conceptual stages of putting together their version of the “contract,” crafted a decade ago by then-Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). The GOP’s plan laid out a series of promised changes they pledged to enact if elected to the majority and was the centerpiece of a campaign in which Republicans rode a wave of voter discontent to their first House majority in 40 years.

Democratic sources say in their version leaders will unveil a “palm card” with a handful of themes designed to define the party and explain why it would provide a better alternative to the current majority. Unlike the original contract, which laid out specifics such as support for Congressional term limits and applying workplace laws to Congress, this version is expected to shy away from detailing policies.

“It will be a clear message about where Democrats want to go, what we stand for and what we will do when we take back the House,” one Democratic leadership aide explained. “It will be broad enough so that all Democrats can get behind it, but it will also show our differences from Republicans.”

Coming up with their own version of a “Contract with America” goes along with Democrats’ recent insistence that they are poised for a major change in political fortunes this cycle — akin to the one Republicans pulled off in 1994.

Democrats are hoping that the same dynamics that gave rise to the GOP victory then will be in place this November. Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) recently released an analysis outlining why he believes Democrats are in an even better position to win this cycle — with the political landscape, candidates and money — than were the Republicans when they took over a decade ago.

“What we’re realizing is given the opportunities we have on the House floor and success of this Contract with America — the poster-sized promise that defined the Republican Party — we’re recognizing in a world of sound bites we really are far behind and we’re playing catch-up,” said another Democratic leadership aide. “We are trying to come up with a very succinct way of explaining who we are and what we stand for.”

Pelosi has pledged that her party would not go into this election without a clear message, and Democratic leaders have been huddling behind closed doors since the Caucus retreat this winter to craft a bumper sticker-style appeal for the election. At the retreat, Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) helped initiate the effort with a poll outlining which Democratic messages play strongly to swing voters.

Democratic leaders have since reached out to prominent marketing and advertising specialists and held several meetings in recent months with Boston billionaire software guru John Cullinane to help devise their political branding.

Pelosi, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), co-chairman of the Steering and Policy Committee, and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a key ally of presidential hopeful and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), are leading the effort internally. Pelosi is also vetting ideas with political allies in California.

“We’ve been talking for a long time about letting people know what it will mean to have a Democratic House,” said Hoyer. “We will do that. I believe it will be in September.”

But Republicans aren’t convinced Democrats will get far, saying the minority party hasn’t been successful yet in aping GOP proposals.

“Democrats have been trying for 10 years to replicate our successes in ’94,” said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “It’s not going to happen. They need to come up with their own ideas.”

Key Democratic aides said that some in the House leadership had wanted to roll out their version of a “contract” before the Democratic National Convention in July, hoping to get voters’ attention before the presidential election fully preoccupies the public. But other Members felt the fall was more appropriate, given that voters are unlikely to be focused on House races until then.

“The timing makes more sense,” said one Democratic leadership aide.

But another Democratic strategist said the delay wasn’t necessarily strategic, rather the leaders aren’t ready and haven’t nailed down a winning idea.

“There’s a great debate about whether they should have unveiled this earlier, before Kerry took center stage,” said the source, noting that when Republicans presented their contract in 1994 there was no presidential campaign in play and Congressional Republicans were the “only ones on the ballot.”

“Win or lose, what Kerry says is going to be what Democrats stand for,” the strategist said. “That’s the biggest challenge Hill Democrats face.”

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