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Race for House At Center Stage

In highly staged, politically charged election-year events, House Republicans and Democrats attempted to one-up the other Wednesday as they worked to differentiate themselves and tell Americans why they should control the majority in the 109th Congress.

With just six weeks until Election Day, each party used the Capitol to host their overlapping events. Democrats took to the West Front to lay out their “Contract with America”-style message blueprint, while Republicans organized an event in the basement of the Capitol to boast of their accomplishments during 10 years in power.

GOP Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio) said: “Our colleagues on the other side of the aisle are trying to steal our celebration thunder.”

Democrats were quick to note that their event had been scheduled first. And when asked whether the Republicans were trying to trump the Democratic event, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said: “Absolutely. That is always to be expected.”

At their well-orchestrated unveiling, Democrats put forth a long-awaited message document dubbed “New Partnership for America’s Future.” The multipage pamphlet, somewhat modeled after the Republicans’ 1994 “Contract with America,” lays out Democrats’ “six core values” of prosperity, national security, fairness, opportunity, community and accountability.

Democrats, 12 seats shy of control of the chamber, designed the document to stress to voters what they would deliver if given a majority and their vision for the country.

Unlike the GOP’s 1994 Contract with America — widely credited with helping propel the Republicans to the majority — the 2004 Democratic message paper hews to broad themes rather than specific legislative proposals. But just as the contract served as a political launching pad for the Republicans, Democrats are seeking comparable political impact from their message.

“It was a good concept to try,” said Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.). “You see what worked in the past on the other side. You don’t have to like it, but you can admire the way they took back the House.”

Even with that concession, however, Pryce and other Republican speakers repeatedly made the point of showing why Democrats are following the GOP’s lead.

“The greatest form of flattery is imitation,” Pryce said. “Democrats are making bumper stickers and Republicans are making history.”

More than 150 Democratic Members and about 200 of the party faithful and aides showed up for the rollout. Party groups, key donors and constituents participated in the event (at the urging of Democratic leaders), which featured banners, buttons, miniature American flags and a live band.

The Democratic Members even led the crowd in a rendition of “God Bless America,” evoking memories of three years ago, when a bipartisan group of lawmakers gathered outside the Capitol to sing in remembrance of those lost in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

In contrast to the pomp and circumstance of the Democratic event, the Republican gathering was relatively subdued. Held in Room HC-5, the GOP event featured a backdrop of several civilians interspersed with a handful of lawmakers, some of whom were elected several years after 1994.

Republican aides distributed flags and glossy booklets highlighting their accomplishments in 10 years of power. Only the top four GOP leaders spoke. The subsequent question period was cut short by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) after two reporters asked about the recent grand jury indictments of three operatives tied to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R) in Texas.

Unlike the GOP event, the Democratic ceremony had been in the works for several weeks, and party leaders have been crafting their “partnership” document since January, enlisting the help of marketing executives and focus groups. Democrats said that while not perfect, the move to package their message was a smart one and credited leaders for crafting it broadly to avoid a split within an oft-ideologically rent Caucus.

Pelosi, following the event, said she is asking Members to take the themes of the document home to their districts, incorporating it into their speeches, editorials, television appearances and town hall meetings in the coming weeks.

The Minority Leader acknowledged the partnership document is unlikely on its own to turn the outcome of the elections but will serve to communicate the party’s legislative work and positions on key issues.

Pelosi said she wants the partnership to serve as a pledge to the country that Democrats will deliver on key policies that meet voters’ values. And while Democrats made little mention of their Republican counterparts or the Bush administration at their event, Pelosi said the message — when communicated to voters — will help lay out the differences between the two parties.

“This is a long-term fight for us,” Pelosi said, adding that the partnership will not disappear after Nov. 2. “We intend to win this election. But this is about who we are and the values we represent.”

Some Democratic Members did question whether all lawmakers — comfortable with their individual campaign style — will actually put the document to use.

“Don’t get me wrong, I think it is a good thing,” said one veteran Democratic lawmaker. “But I don’t want anyone to think it will be the deciding factor” in November.

The House Democrats’ message originally was set for release before the July Democratic National Convention, but was pushed back until September when party leaders argued voters were more likely to be paying attention. Some said then that the delay was ill-advised because it would come too late to create a message that can resonate long term.

Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) said afterward the party was strategic in its rollout of the partnership document, both in substance and presentation. As for comparisons to the GOP contract, Menendez said the Democratic effort isn’t designed to serve as the sole impetus for the party to win: “We believe our collective work will lead us to success.”

Republicans, however, criticized the Democratic outline as hollow and lacking detail.

“Today isn’t about the past but the future,” DeLay said, promising “an agenda of deeds, not words.”

DeLay also ridiculed what he saw as the inoffensive platitudes of the Democratic manifesto.

“Nancy Pelosi and the most conservative member of the Republican Congress — I guess that would be me — could agree on their package,” DeLay said.

Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), meanwhile, compared the Democratic blueprint to the GOP contract as “Madison Avenue versus Main Street.”

While Republicans were crowing about their success in implementing the contract, Democrats were quick to point out that several elements of the GOP’s 1994 plan — including a balanced budget amendment, the line-item veto and term limits — never became permanent law. Republican plans in 1995 to abolish three whole Cabinet departments never got off the ground, and large deficits have returned after a brief period when the budget was balanced.

In the buildup to Wednesday’s events, Republicans repeatedly sought to contrast what they saw as the vague nature of the Democrats’ proposal with their own, specific agenda. But while the Republicans did highlight substantive accomplishments of the past 10 years, the section of their booklet devoted to the future wasn’t any more specific than the Democrats’ plans were.

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) said the Democratic partnership was meant to be a broad document, arguing it is “not mumbo jumbo,” but a thoughtful outline of the party and what it is all about. He said Democrats were wise to make the document simple so “people can understand it.”

“No one even thought we were going to be in play” this cycle, he said. “Now we have an outside chance.”