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Leaders Rethink Message Team

National Democratic leaders are poised to drop a much-hyped message guru they turned to just a few months ago to help re-brand the party, looking instead for different voices to provide them with a sharper political message, sources said.

Senior Democratic sources said New York marketing expert and former Internet executive Richard Yanowitch, is perceived by many in the party as moving too slowly, and has yet to wow party leaders with a solid game plan.

The sources said that Congressional leaders and the Democratic National Committee, working together on an overhaul of the party’s image, are ready to turn to seasoned media firms and other non-Washington communications experts to help spread the Democratic agenda beyond the Beltway.

“Everyone is deeply appreciative about Richard Yanowitch’s contributions to the process, but there is an agreement that now is the time to turn to a commercial firm,” said a senior Democratic aide who requested anonymity. “At this point, there is a general agreement from both chambers and the DNC that it is time to move forward with a united front and pursue messaging with professionals outside the Beltway.”

Another Congressional leadership aide familiar with the situation charged that Yanowitch has produced “nothing at this point” and said that skepticism has been mounting in all corners of the party about what he ultimately would produce. This source said that Yanowitch has brought little to the table beyond “what it is we stand for.”

Democrats emphasized that Yanowitch has been offering his services for free, and that he was not being fired. Indeed, Yanowitch is expected to remain an adviser to Senate Democrats, for whom he has shaped a strategy for employing the most favorable language to talk about key issues. In May, he crafted a major message document advising Senate and House Democrats about how best to present their position on Social Security.

Instead, party officials sought to portray any change in Yanowitch’s status as a strategic decision to move the party’s joint message effort in another direction.

Senior staff at the DNC and in the offices of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) will huddle this morning, where they are expected to discuss the New York marketing specialist’s status going forward. The next phase of the message initiative has been a top leadership priority in recent months.

Sources said that some Members, including Pelosi and Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.), were generally satisfied with his work, and felt that Democrats were invested in his efforts and should see what he ultimately produced.

But Reid and many other Democrats have grown increasingly wary about the ultimate value of his work and feel a sense of urgency for Democrats to change direction as they prepare for the 2006 elections. Next year’s elections could be a major opportunity for the Democratic minority because the sixth year of a presidency has often resulted in major losses for the president’s party.

Yanowitch, who was traveling Wednesday, could not be reached for comment by press time.

Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly declined to comment Wednesday on the state of the project and Yanowitch’s status, only to say: “We’re all working together.”

Jim Manley, Reid’s spokesman, also declined to comment on Yanowitch’s role in the Democratic Party’s larger branding project. But Manley did note that Yanowitch is still deeply involved in the Senate Democratic Policy Committee’s ongoing message plan, which is focused specifically on the needs of Senate Democrats.

Pelosi, Reid and DNC Chairman Howard Dean have been working for months to craft a plan to effectively deliver express their policy priorities. Democrats acknowledge that it has been difficult to compete with the Republican publicity machine, which is fueled by the White House bully pulpit and the GOP’s control of Congress.

“We are in the process, as we have always been, of supporting things we think helps strengthen this country and gives opportunity to ordinary Americans,” Dorgan said. “It is always hard for a minority party to be heard above the crowd noise of a majority party. And the majority party sets the agenda and they create a fair amount of noise.”

Dorgan and other Democrats said Republicans have been helped greatly over the past decade by conservative talk radio personalities who largely promote GOP ideology and legislative goals. Over the past year, Democrats have put an added emphasis on trying to reach constituents through this medium.

“We are finding our voice,” Dorgan said.

One Democratic Member said the issue isn’t whether Democrats turn to Yanowitch or some other message guru. Rather, the Democrat said it’s about reaching the party goal of “taking what we believe in, what we stand for and communicating it in a way that’s effective.”

This Member said that many ideas are being discussed. “We need to … make a message that is simple,” this Member said. “We don’t have that defined. We don’t have that yet.”

While Democrats are still searching for an effective means to deliver their message beyond the Beltway, Members and aides involved in planning the strategy are quick to note that there is no disagreement over the substance of policy. Democratic Members and aides emphasized the importance of this fact, noting that disputes over policy would most certainly fracture an already splintered party.

Still, there is recognition that Democrats need to move forward.

“We have not been very adroit at that and we are trying very hard to change it,” said another Democratic Member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“There is agreement on the core values we stand for as party and as Democrats and how we then translate that into the next step in the process,” said a Democratic leadership aide. “Whether Yanowitch is involved or not, or who is involved in terms of consultants, is unclear, but certainly there is consensus in the Democratic leadership about being on same page and working together and that’s a positive thing for the party.”

Members and aides alike said that even if Yanowitch is no longer in the room, the party’s tactic has always been to use multiple advisers on the effort including pollsters, media consultants and marketing experts. Those same sources said the next step is to continue meeting over the next four weeks and to come up with more solid ideas to test with the public.

“Since this started, it has been a collective effort, unlike at any other time, to be as homogenized … humanly possible” in the party’s policy stances and message strategy, said one Democratic Member.

Rep. Jim Clyburn (S.C.), the vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said the party uniformly agrees on what it stands for. It now just has to find a way to communicate those views better than the Republicans in an era of 30-second sound bites.

Clyburn and other leaders aren’t revealing the details, but say that the goal is to complete the initiative by year’s end.

“It’s moving along,” said Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.). “There’s a lot of work being done on it.”