Judging Terry: The DNC's Terry McAuliffe Hasn't Been Mr. Popular, Especially since '02. but He's Quietly Been Assembling the Machinery for '04. His Rep-And a Lot More-Hinges on the Outcome

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Terry McAuliffe doesn't know how to shut it off. The chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), says Democratic strategist Harold Ickes, "is a great salesman; he has this infectious optimism." Even in the face of abjectly awful election outcomes, McAuliffe hasn't been able to tone down that optimism. Nuance seems beyond him. On election night 2002, as all available intelligence pointed to a Democratic debacle, McAuliffe nonetheless told Larry King, "I think it's going to be a very good night for the Democrats."

And when the chairman sits down with me two nights after this November's election, in which the Democrats lost the governorships of Mississippi and Kentucky, he remains true to form. He has just flown in from Florida, where he'd spoken to his usual audience--Democratic high rollers--and he seems to still be flying. Plopping himself on a couch, he immediately launches into a high-voltage, somewhat hyperbolic account of his tenure at the DNC.

"Look, we'd love to have kept the two southern governorships," he begins, "but as it relates to what I worry about every day--the 270 electoral votes--it's not a factor."

Not all of his fellow Democrats are so sanguine. Just that day, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) told the congressional newspaper The Hill that "McAuliffe is out there on his own agenda, which does not involve the South."

Thompson's not entirely wrong. McAuliffe has indeed shifted the focus of the national committee to the coming presidential contest--that is, to the 17 to 21 almost entirely non-southern "battleground states" that could go either way in November 2004. "We've always had our hands tied by the fact that we had to care about all 50 states; we were afraid to do targeting," says one veteran party operative. Under McAuliffe, though, targeting has come to the DNC with a vengeance. And it's about time.

Working largely under the radar, McAuliffe has actually made the DNC better prepared for a presidential election than it may ever have been. While the innovations in fund raising and communications of Howard Dean's presidential campaign and MoveOn.org have been widely noted, the analogous changes at the DNC have largely escaped attention. So, too, has the ramping up of its 2004 field campaign, which, under the direction of general election strategist Teresa Vilmain, is taking place earlier than ever before.

Part of the reason that the DNC changes have been shrouded in obscurity, however, is the committee's continuing inability to put forth a really powerful message to the party faithful. At bottom, the successes of both Dean and MoveOn are a function of their strong stance against the Iraq War--a stance that McAuliffe, constrained by the party's divisions on the issue, felt incapable of taking. The committee's online critiques of the Bush administration lack the punch of those coming out of the Center for American Progress, the new progressive policy and communications operation headed by former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta.

Indeed, much of the good news for Democrats these days is coming from a variety of organizations (dubbed "527s" in the argot of election law) that have been set up to do the kind of campaign work that, in theory, the DNC used to perform but which the funding restrictions of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law now make impossible. One such piece of good news came in the form of the re-election of Democratic Philadelphia Mayor John Street--in a state that McAuliffe argues is more important than Kentucky or Mississippi. "We had a very good night in Pennsylvania," he effuses. "We need those 21 electoral votes."

Street's victory was, in fact, a big deal. Two months before election day, polls showed Street to be extremely vulnerable. Then came revelations that the FBI was bugging his office, which unleashed a wave of indignation at John Ashcroft and the FBI within the city's huge black community. …