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Mountain, Plains Democrats Look for Respect

Irate at the 2000 Democratic presidential ticket for ignoring them, Democrats from the historically Republican Plains and Mountain West say their 2004 team has already made great strides in firing up activists in Western states where Democratic presidential contenders tend to fare poorly.

In Montana — a “red state” where Democrats have a surprisingly strong chance this fall to seize the governorship and one or two houses of the state Legislature — Democrats were elated to host John Kerry’s sister Diana last week on a two-day, eight-stop visit.

“He’s paying attention to Montana, which we all deeply appreciate,” said Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.). “On the other hand, he’s got a race to run, and I don’t criticize him for focusing on those states where he has to spend his time. It’s much more of an uphill fight in Montana than in other states.”

Montana Democratic Party Chairman Bob Ream said he’s “had far better luck” with Kerry than with 2000 nominee Al Gore — a reality reflected in the vote tallies. After Bill Clinton won Montana in 1992 and lost it narrowly in 1996, Gore lost the state by 25 points.

“We’ve been able to get yard signs and bumper stickers this year,” Ream said in an interview at his delegation’s welcoming party Sunday. “We didn’t get a thing in 2000. Last time, we had to buy everything online.”

In Vice President Cheney’s home state of Wyoming, which gave only 28 percent of the vote to Gore in 2000, a July fundraiser for Kerry in Jackson raised $425,000 with the help of such economic heavyweights as Bob Rubin, Felix Rohatyn and Roger Altman.

And in Idaho, which like Wyoming gave Gore 28 percent of the vote in 2000, a July fundraiser in Sun Valley attracted 400 donors — four times the number expected — and raised $300,000, a record for Idaho Democrats, said Carolyn Boyce, chairwoman of the state Democratic Party.

By not going to states where Democrats can run strong locally while Republicans win national elections, “what you do is take down a whole raft of Democrats who have to run their campaign without any national help,” said one Democratic activist.

In Idaho, where Kerry and his wife, Teresa, have a vacation home in Sun Valley, state party officials hope the Kerrys will make a stop there later in the campaign to help down-ballot Democratic candidates. Democrats posted gains in the state Legislature in 2002 and did surprisingly well in the gubernatorial race the same year.

The activist added that a stop by campaign heavies such as the vice presidential candidate can do wonders even if the presidential nominee doesn’t come.

As a candidate, Kerry starts with a better profile than Gore did — at least in style, if not in substance, Western Democratic officials said. Gore, for instance, was one of the nation’s most visible environmentalists, a fact that scared many Idaho voters, Boyce said. Kerry, too, is considered pro-environment, but is quieter about his views.

Another stylistic contrast is on gun control.

“Gore was fighting the image, unsuccessfully, that Democrats were going to take your guns,” said Ream of Montana.

But Kerry has made a calculated effort to portray himself as someone who regularly uses guns for recreational purposes. Ream said he’s recently found success establishing a sportsmen’s caucus among Montana Democrats.

Another plus for Kerry in Western states has been his military service in Vietnam. Montana has one of the nation’s highest percentages of veterans, and when Ream established Montana Veterans for Kerry, “the response was just tremendous,” he said. “When we rolled it out, we had 100 members by the end of the month.”

State party officials in the Mountain states insisted that they were aware of no Western Democrat who had reservations about coming to Boston this week, for fear that the party’s more liberal face would alienate voters back home.

While Wyoming’s Democratic governor, Dave Freudenthal, is not at the convention, incoming Democratic National Committeeman Pete Jorgensen said it’s because he had to preside over Frontier Days, an annual rodeo and fair in Cheyenne that is of enormous importance to the state.

Other issues under debate in the presidential campaign should help Democrats in red states, Boyce said.

“Voters are certainly looking for an economic message,” she said. President Bush’s education plan, No Child Left Behind, “is not working in rural communities in Idaho, and people are looking for more vision in the world, not just rhetoric. Idahoans are dying in [the Iraq] war.”

In North Dakota, the contrast between the 2000 and 2004 campaigns has been like night and day, Democratic officials say.

Four years ago, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) was particularly incensed at Gore and his running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), for failing to even give lip service to his state.

When Lieberman made a refueling stop in Fargo, during the 2000 campaign, Dorgan was furious that the vice presidential candidate did not use the down time to do a quick rally of North Dakota’s Democratic faithful.

“We tried very hard in the 2000 campaign to get a political event with the ticket and weren’t successful,” said Dorgan. “That’s not going to happen this time.”

In April 2002, Dorgan wrote to Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe telling him that Gore should not make another run for president unless he was going to spend more time trying to help out local Democratic candidates.

“Even in areas where they may not win, stopping and doing a campaign rally can be very helpful to local candidates,” Dorgan said. Several local North Dakota Democrats narrowly lost seats in 2000, while Bush coasted to victory with 61 percent of the vote there.

Dorgan said that Kerry and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), have been quite receptive to entreaties to visit North Dakota and other red states, and have cohesive, coordinated campaigns in all 50 states.

“I don’t expect them to spend the same amount of time in our states as they will in battleground states,” he said. “But my expectation is that you will see the Kerry-Edwards campaign stop in North Dakota this time, and that’ll be a change from 2000.”

Just last week, Dorgan spoke with Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill about making sure the campaign makes stops in the heartland. It hasn’t happened yet, but he’s hopeful.

“I haven’t been in discussion with them because I’m nervous,” he said. “I’ve been discussing with them because I’m excited about the new attitude that exists.”

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