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A party's future comes together

The Democrats have sampled the sweet elixir of unity and have decided they like the taste.

As a consultant to one of the trailing candidates said after Thursday night's televised debate at St. Anselm College, "We've finally decided we're not going to do the Republicans' work for them."

The last encounter before Tuesday's New Hampshire primary turned out to be less an elbow-throwing, karate-chopping joust for position among rivals for the nomination than a rehearsal for the time one of them will face President Bush.

Howard Dean threw the toughest punch of the night, when he talked of the 500 American dead in Iraq and the 2,200 who have been wounded. "Those soldiers," the former Vermont governor said, "were sent there by the vote of Sen. (Joe) Lieberman and Sen. (John) Kerry and Sen. (John) Edwards. That is a fact. And I think that's a very serious matter, and it is a matter upon which we differ."

But it was also Dean who endorsed Edwards' rebuke of the press panel's persistence on divisive social issues. "John Edwards is absolutely right," Dean said. "This isn't about gay marriage. This is about jobs. This isn't about race. This is about education, because everybody needs a good education, no matter what color you are.

"This is not about the things that divide us," Dean continued. "If we're ever going to win another election again in some of these states (carried by Bush in 2000), we have to have to talk about education, health care and jobs. We cannot fight the Republicans on their ground. We're going to fight them on our grounds."

Wesley Clark, who only last year formally declared himself a Democrat, gave the most poetic description of the unifying principles. "The Democratic Party," he said, "is a party of ideas. It is a party as broad as a Montana sky. We welcome everybody into this party and we care about people. That's why I'm a Democrat."

Behind that rhetoric is a common determination _ clearly shared by Democratic voters _ to reverse the Bush administration policies on taxes, business regulation and the environment and to find the revenues to expand the social safety net.

Clark has no history in the party he hopes to lead and Dean has been outspoken in his criticism of its congressional leadership and the whole Washington insider culture. But both have happily accepted endorsements from establishment figures and both have gained support from the party's traditional interest group allies.

As for the three senators, they have similar stances on the issues Dean listed _ and few fundamental differences on fiscal or budgetary policy. All three would roll back the Bush tax cuts on upper-income individuals and would move to repair relations with allies estranged by Bush's aggressive foreign policy.

At this point four years ago, when the Republicans were contesting for their nomination, a good deal more bad blood was showing. Gary Bauer was hectoring George W. Bush to promise he would appoint clearly antiabortion judges to the Supreme Court. Steve Forbes was accusing Bush of being a tax-raiser in Texas. While Bush and John McCain professed their friendship here in New Hampshire, the comity ended with Bush's defeat in the primary and the enmity that followed in South Carolina never was fully healed.

And yet Republicans rallied quickly around the nominee and he went on to win the White House.

I see nothing on the horizon that would prevent Democrats from finding common cause behind any of these five men. Their desire to defeat Bush is clearly stronger than any doubts about each other.

None of this alters my view that it will be difficult for the Democrats to win the coming election, no matter what the makeup of their ticket.

But you can also see the strengths in this field _ enough talent and enough unity to make the coming contest a fair test for the president, who was, let us note, less than dazzling in his solo act on State of the Union night.

David Broder is a Washington Post columnist.

Washington Post Writers Group