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Published: Sunday, 8/20/2000

Mississippi trip aims at building united coalition of Democrats

BY JOHN NICHOLS
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

DUBUQUE, Ia. - As she awaited the arrival of the Mississippi riverboat that would take the Vice President to her hometown of Prairie du Chien, Wis., 20-year-old Amanda Lester ticked off the reasons why she will cast her first presidential ballot for Al Gore.

"I just agree with him on everything," the chipper college sophomore volunteered. "He's right on education. He's right on gun control. He's right on abortion."

At the mention of the "A" word, Amanda's mom interrupted her. "Don't let grandma Lester hear that," said Sandy Lester, who explained that while the Lesters are Democrats they are not in complete agreement on a certain hot-button issue.

Mother and daughter nodded to one another, as mom suggested, "Stick to Social Security and Medicare."

Sandy Lester didn't know it, but she was summing up Mr. Gore's strategy in the critical image-building days after last week's Democratic National Convention.

As the Vice President floats down the Mississippi on a tour that will take him to more than a dozen towns filled with Democratic loyalists, there is no secret about his destination: He wants to get to a place where the Democrats are as united behind him as Republicans are behind George W. Bush.

Polls taken before the Democratic convention suggested that, while roughly 95 per cent of Republicans are enthusiastic about Governor Bush, only about 75 per cent of Democrats are on board for the Mr. Gore.

The Vice President's 389-mile boat trip down the Mississippi is stopping in four states - Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri - where Bill Clinton won by securing traditional Democratic voters early and then building on that base.

"We're going to touch a lot of important communities in key states that often end up deciding presidential elections," said Mr. Gore, a man whose reputation as a policy wonk is superceded only by his reputation as a political wonk.

To accomplish the task, however, he must navigate the rocky shoals of a party coalition that does not always agree on the party platform - particularly on such issues as abortion. That's certainly the case along the Mississippi, where the descendents of Roman Catholic immigrants from Germany and eastern Europe form a huge portion of the Democratic party base.

Cities such as Dubuque, where Mr. Gore addressed several thousand supporters at a noon rally yesterday, are, in the words of Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Rob Tully, nothing less than "Democratic heaven." It took Mr. Tully more than five minutes to introduce all the local Democratic elected officials to Mr. Gore.

The challenge for Mr. Gore, say Dubuque Democrats such as Charlie Breitbach, is to make sure the debate does not get around to social issues such as abortion, which Ronald Reagan and Republican House members such U.S. Rep. Jim Nussle, who represents Dubuque, have used to bust the Democratic coalition.

As in ethnic industrial regions of Ohio and Pennsylvania that gave rise to the term "Reagan Democrats," the river towns along the Mississippi are not so secure in the Democratic column that Democratic candidates are encouraged to speak their minds on issues such as abortion.

"Abortion? Just don't bring that up," says Mr. Breitbach, a United Auto Workers union activist who wore a "Proud to be a Democrat" T-shirt but broke ranks with his candidate to complain about the Clinton administration's defense of late-term abortion procedures. "I want to get people to vote Democrat around here, so I'd prefer to have Al lay off the abortion thing."

There's not much mystery about Mr. Gore's position on abortion. In his acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention Thursday, he said: "Let there be no doubt: I will protect and defend a woman's right to choose. The last thing this country needs is a Supreme Court that overturns Roe vs. Wade."

That page of the Gore speech did not make the trip from Los Angeles to La Crosse, Wis.



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