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Reid Working on ’08 Strategy

Keen to maintain his open seats and capitalize on a deflated and bruised Republican Party, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has begun laying the groundwork for a legislative and message strategy aimed at maximizing Democrats’ electoral gains in the closely divided chamber.

According to Democrats who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the preliminary nature of the efforts, Reid’s decision to bring former Chief of Staff Susan McCue formally back into his political operation is part of a broader effort to put in place a comprehensive legislative and political strategy geared toward the 2008 Senate election cycle.

Senate Democrats have struggled at times in their first 10 months to take charge of a narrowly divided chamber — one that even Reid didn’t anticipate controlling heading into the momentous 2006 elections. Still, Democrats say they are aware of the challenges and welcome any attempt by the leadership to set a strategy to help them convince the electorate to grow their 51-seat majority.

“We have to have it,” said Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who himself is up for reelection in 2008. “We’ll be held accountable and we should be. We’ve struggled with 51 votes in a world of 60 and we still have a lot to show for it.”

With that in mind, Senate Democrats said it is a smart play to craft a message that lays out the party’s priorities heading into the next election, especially if Senators hope to widen their margins and improve their chances of passing legislation. Part of the planning, they said, should include reminding the public what the party has delivered this Congress and that, despite the setbacks, Senate Democrats have had victories.

“We have a story to tell,” Durbin said.

Clearly, Reid isn’t resting on his laurels, even though Democrats are likely to pick up at least a handful of GOP-held seats next year. Already, Reid has assembled a team of loyal insiders to plot a blueprint, including his former top aide McCue, who left less than a year ago to head the ONE Campaign, the anti-poverty and AIDS organization.

Although McCue is in part being brought in to help with 2008 strategy, sources stressed that Reid also sees her presence as a way to complement the day-to-day legislative and political apparatuses he has set up since her departure last year.

McCue this week began what is to be a series of meetings with top Reid aides to develop Senate Democrats’ election plan. The effort, according to Democrats familiar with the issue, likely will be distinct from those of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Reid’s strategy likely will include identifying key legislative proposals Democrats can use to highlight their policy positions while forcing Republicans to take increasingly difficult votes. While no specific legislative items have been identified, the strategy could be similar to one being used by Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on the children’s health insurance bill.

On the political front, Reid’s operation will put together a broad message framework through which to work, and will begin outreach to key outside groups and Democratic power players over the next several months.

Additionally, Reid and his office will likely begin in the coming months to sit down with incumbent Democrats to determine what legislative or political help they may need from leadership.

The goal, according to these sources, is to have a working plan in place by the end of the year.

A senior Democratic Senate staffer said the early maneuvering by Reid makes sense, saying that whatever comes of it, it could “not only help us widen our margins in Congress, but also win back the White House.” The aide added that now that Democrats are in control, “it’s even more incumbent upon us — and even more difficult — to show our priorities.”

Democrats acknowledge they will have a tough time breaking through given the huge focus on the presidential campaign by the media and the public. Inevitably, the Democratic presidential nominee will be the party’s top spokesperson, and his or her priorities will be inextricably linked to those of the Senators.

“It’s going to be very difficult to do it,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said. “It’s good if we can, but it will be very difficult.”

Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) said despite the challenges, Democratic leaders are wise to set that course, saying: “We are a separate branch of government from the executive [branch]. It’s important for the United States Senate under Harry Reid’s leadership to articulate our goals beyond 2008 and what are our priorities.”

Republicans have been engaging in a similar exercise on their side of the aisle, having spent recent months re-evaluating their party’s brand and agenda. GOP Senators recently got a rude awakening when they learned that voters no longer put as a top priority previously enacted tax cuts — a message that’s served as a centerpiece of Republican campaigns. Those discussions also have involved calls for the GOP to hone their domestic agenda, including by encouraging the development of a health care reform agenda.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said despite the efforts, both parties will struggle next year trying to lay out a vision that is separate and distinct from their respective White House nominees.

“It’s really hard for so many of us,” Cornyn said. “Nobody’s got the pulpit like the president or the presidential nominees. They are going to get all the attention.”