By Dave Helling
KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Two years ago on Aug. 25,the Democratic Party gathered in Denver - energetic and confident of victory - to nominate Barack Obama for president.
What a difference a deep recession, two wars, a yearlong argument over health care, a tea party movement, a massive deficit, a minor scandal or two, a muddled message and partisan gridlock can make.
That 2008 enthusiasm, many Democrats acknowledge, has turned to anger and disillusionment in 2010, threatening midterm chances for scores of their candidates.
"My gosh, it's like night and day," said Anne McGregor, a field organizer for Obama, comparing the attitude of his supporters now and then.
"Young people have no reason to be excited," observed Doug Gray, a political consultant and liberal organizer in the Kansas City area. "They feel like it doesn't matter, it's just more of the same."
Political pros have dubbed the problem an "enthusiasm gap," and point to polling that suggests the deepening Democratic problem:
-An Ipsos Public Affairs poll designed to measure voter enthusiasm in August put Democrats at 60 percent and Republicans at 79 percent.
-Gallup found 51 percent of conservative Republicans "very enthusiastic" about voting this November; just 29 percent of liberal Democrats are in that category
-A Public Policy Polling survey showed 58 percent of all voters are "very excited" about casting ballots, but just 43 percent of "moderate Democrats" are in that category
"Republicans will have a much easier time mobilizing their base than Democrats," Ipsos concluded. "Indeed, 'get out the vote' and other grassroots campaigns are always made easier when the base is positively predisposed ... greater voter enthusiasm, in turn, should translate itself into Republican electoral success."
Democrats are divided on the cause for the enthusiasm gap.
Some contend Republicans have been better at communicating their message. Others say disillusionment is inevitable given the depth of the nation's problems. Still others maintain that Obama has been too eager to compromise with Republicans "without getting anything in return," McGregor said.
And Democrats argue that the gap may reflect Republican energy more than disillusionment in their own ranks. They predict a return to the fold as Election Day draws closer.
"We're great at the circular firing squad," said campaign consultant Martin Hamburger, who is working for several Democratic congressional candidates, including Stephene Moore in Kansas' 3rd District. "There is carping ... but I don't think in the end those people stay home."
Republicans, though, contend the gap is real and will affect midterm races, which are more dependent on grassroots turnout than presidential elections.
"The single biggest component is motivation of the base and turnout in a midterm," said longtime Missouri GOP operative John Hancock.
The effects of the enthusiasm gap, he said, will be felt in several local races, including Ike Skelton's re-election bid in Missouri's 4th Congressional District and the Roy Blunt-Robin Carnahan Senate campaign.
A Rasmussen poll released Tuesday showed Blunt, the Republican, with his biggest lead to date in that race: 51 percent to Carnahan's 40 percent.
Carnahan spokesman Linden Zakula said the poll's findings did not reflect any enthusiasm gap. He said they show the impact of Blunt's heavy advertising effort in July and August, as well as anti-Carnahan ads from outside groups.
He said the numbers will narrow once voters focus on comparisons between Blunt and Carnahan.
"I really don't sense any lack of enthusiasm," Zakula said.
But some Democrats said Carnahan's response to her poll numbers could alienate party members in the state.
In recent weeks, she has called for extending all of the Bush tax cuts, wavered on the requirement that almost everyone buy health insurance and declined to take a firm position supporting the Park51 mosque development in New York.
Those positions, some Democrats said, could cause problems with traditional party voting blocs such as organized labor and urban and minority voters.
"I was over on the east side the other day, talking to community leaders," McGregor said. "At the end I said, 'We're really going to have to support Robin.' All of a sudden the room got really still. There's no support for her over there."
Some Democrats said it will help if Obama assumes a more aggressive campaign posture. Hamburger noted Obama's pointed criticisms of the GOP earlier this month, saying he expects those attacks to continue after Labor Day.
"There's still time to mitigate some of the damage we've done to ourselves," Gray said. "But we need a bit more of backbone and to start talking about some of these issues."
Other party members are urging discontented Democrats to get over it.
"I can understand your disillusionment with a president and representatives that seem to bend to the prevailing winds from the right," former Labor Secretary Robert Reich wrote earlier this month.
"But if you ... and other progressives wallow in your cynicism we'll be in much bigger trouble as a nation than we are now."
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