From Sasha Johnson
CNN Washington Bureau
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DENVER, Colorado (CNN) -- Wary of losing an opportunity to regain control of Congress this fall, some Democrats are hoping a return to the "middle class values agenda" will help focus the party's fall message and capitalize on a tough political environment for Republicans.
"America needs to work for everyone, not just the privileged and the powerful," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday at the Democratic Leadership Council's 10th annual "National Conversation" in Denver. "Democrats can be the change agents our country needs."
The two-day political meeting brought together nearly 400 state and local Democratic officials to try and articulate a message for mid-term candidates and lay the groundwork for reclaiming the presidency in 2008.
"In the end if it's going to be a Democratic year, and if we're going to build the foundation for taking the White House back we're going to have to do it by what we stand for, by the values and ideas that we promote," DLC founder and CEO Al From said.
Clinton helped design and unveil the DLC's "American Dream Initiative," a policy agenda geared toward expanding economic, health care and educational opportunities for the middle class.
"It's an agenda that we hope will unite Democrats and help elect Democrats across the country this November," Clinton said. "As Americans, we know what's wrong with the other side: They're not taking care of America."
Republicans were quick to denounce the proposal. An e-mail release from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's office called it the "Democrat's latest tax-and-spend plan."
The New York senator's ties to the DLC run deep. Her husband, former President Clinton, once was chairman of the group and used its centrist mantra to propel him to the White House.
"You know, to paraphrase the historic 1992 campaign, 'It's the American dream, stupid,' " she said to applause.
Clinton's presence, along with that of Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, the DLC chairman, and Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, both of whom are mulling a presidential run, emphasized the degree to which the 2008 campaign is already under way.
During the two-day gathering, both Bayh and Vilsack met and mingled with delegates from key early primary and caucus states, including Iowa and New Hampshire. Clinton dropped by a breakfast fund-raiser for the Colorado Democratic party, a move that underscores the realization among the national party that Democrats cannot win in '08 without moving Mountain West states into the blue column.
Clinton proved to be the biggest draw. But the "will she or won't she" chatter and enthusiasm surrounding her political prospects was not uniform among the DLC delegates.
"Everything she does is political," said Clarence Davis, a state delegate from Maryland. "Who is she, really? Does she really believe in anything, or what? I mean, every move they make, it's almost as if being elected is more important than America."
"She's a lightening rod, and she is an incredible human being," said Montana State Rep. Jeanne Windham. "I think she can actually be a very unifying force to this country. We'll see."
Democrats' desire to find a winner in 2008 had some delegates questioning whether Clinton, regardless of her star status among the party faithful, could win a national election and appeal to more conservative, red state voters.
"It's not her fault, particularly, but it goes back to all of the hatred and demonizing of the Clintons at the time when they were in office," said Barbara Bobo, the Democratic candidate for Alabama's 4th Congressional District. If she were to run, "even people who are strong Democrats know that for a fact, the South will be written off again, and that's unfair, it's really unfair for Hillary, but that's reality."
Proving Bobo's point that the Clintons remain some of the right-wing's favorite political bogeymen, K.T. McFarland, a former Defense Department official in the Reagan administration and one of the Republicans vying to run against Clinton in November, sent out an Internet fund-raising appeal Monday, saying: "President Hillary Rodham Clinton -- Those four words are as scary as the idea that the ultra-liberal, carpet-bagger Senator from New York might have a chance of being the leader of the most powerful country in the world."
Polling shows Clinton remains popular among Democrats, but in a recent Washington Post survey, only 37% of those polled said they would actually vote for her if she sought the presidency.
Regardless of whether Clinton runs in 2008, Democrats know if the party performs poorly in the midterm elections, the chance of Democrats taking back the White House in 2008 would be slim.
"This is a year of opportunity for Democrats, but it's just that, it's an opportunity," said Jennifer Mann, a Pennsylvania state representative.
"It isn't enough to say 'there's a great opportunity, let's just count your chickens and go home, this is a done deal.' Anybody who says that is making a mistake. I think we've had plenty of successes as a party, but we've also had plenty of failures, and I think people are aware that if we don't do the things we need to do this could also be a devastating failure for our party," Mann said.
With President Bush's approval rating still hovering around 40 percent and a solid majority of Americans sour on the Iraq war and the direction of the country, Democratic strategists feel the environment is ripe for a change in power -- assuming their party's message and strategy resonate with voters.
"If things don't go well in '06 based on all of the nonsense that has gone on for the last four-and-a-half years, then we're going to have to regroup," said New Hampshire State Sen. Lou D'Allesandro. "If we cannot make headway based on all of the problems that all of the people have now, then we've got a problem. I would say that (the Democratic Party) would have a cathartic experience."
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