SEEKING NEW LIFE FOR THE PARTY Wilhelm links Democrats' hopes to president


WASHINGTON -- To his dismay, Democratic National Chairman David Wilhelm recently found out that his office had no list of Democratic county chairmen around the country.

"We should," he says. Their names "ought to be on our fax list."

That sort of thing may not have mattered much to his immediate predecessors -- who often had to struggle just to hold the party together.

But it's an untapped resource to Mr. Wilhelm, the man President Clinton picked to head the party and get it into shape for his 1996 re-election campaign.

Each day, the party faxes the administration's latest partisan propaganda, a one-page set of talking points known as "The Morning Briefing," to thousands of elected Democratic officials and party functionaries around the country.

("Help us keep people in touch. Fax The Morning Briefing to three additional supporters each day," reads the fine print at the bottom, using a classic piece of message-spreading.)

A one-time hired gun of politics, Mr. Wilhelm is turning the Democratic Party apparatus into a permanent campaign operation for Mr. Clinton and his agenda. He has boosted the size of the public relations staff and is using telemarketing and direct mail to generate public support for the president's economic plan.

What's ultimately at stake, he contends, is nothing less than the future of the party, which has been given another chance by the voters, for the first time in a dozen years, to show what it can do.

"The long-term success of the Democratic Party," Mr. Wilhelm said in an interview this week, "is inextricably linked to Bill Clinton's success as president."

Expanding Mr. Clinton's 43 percent of the vote last fall into a clear majority "depends on whether or not we demonstrate that this party can govern and govern effectively," he added. "There's a lot of skepticism about that out there, a lot of skepticism that Democrats will really cut the deficit. . . . If we do, then Democrats from the president on down will benefit."

OC Already, Mr. Wilhelm's operation has placed more than 1 million

calls -- many from paid phone banks funded by the party -- to Clinton supporters and party donors around the country. The calls urge rank-and-file Democrats to contact local congressman senators in support of the Clinton economic plan, and even offer them the necessary phone numbers.

Contingency plans are also being made for a targeted attack on wavering congressmen, including Democrats, when the economic program reaches the floor of Congress later this year.

If such an intraparty assault materializes, it will be organized by the DNC's fresh-faced crew of Clintonistas -- led by Mr. Wilhelm, who looks considerably younger than his 36 years.

From his top-floor office a few blocks from the Capitol, he is presiding over a party headquarters that has undergone a dramatic, generational change, seemingly overnight.

These days, the staff is composed largely of Clinton campaign veterans, casually dressed young men and women whose average age appears to be 22. Desks clustered in tiny work spaces and boxes stacked in the corridors give the offices, for the moment at least, the appearance of a campaign headquarters -- which, in a very real sense, it is.

Party insiders say Mr. Wilhelm's greatest asset in his new job is his closeness to the president. When he's not out of town promoting the Clinton agenda -- especially to younger voters, who he thinks are key to the party's rebuilding effort -- Mr. Wilhelm is a regular participant in political strategy sessions at the White House.

But Mr. Clinton scarcely knew Mr. Wilhelm when he hired the Chicago-based consultant to manage his presidential campaign in the fall of 1991 (after already announcing his candidacy). Mr. Wilhelm's wife, Degee, also signed on, and became Mr. Clinton's personal assistant during the campaign.

When the election was over, Mr. Clinton had decided that Mr. Wilhelm was the best person to take charge at the DNC. Although a modern political consultant had never run the party before, the move paralleled George Bush's choice of his campaign manager, consultant Lee Atwater, to head the Republican National Committee in 1988.

Budget cutbacks and new ethics guidelines at the White House have combined to shift much of the traditional White House political operation to the DNC. Several of the president's senior political advisers, including pollster Stan Greenberg, media strategist Mandy Grunwald and political tacticians Paul Begala and James Carville, are --or will soon be -- paid monthly stipends as DNC consultants, in lieu of a government salary.

Friends and associates describe Mr. Wilhelm as something of a Clinton clone. Like the president, he grew up in modest circumstances (in Ohio, where his father, an East German refugee, taught college) and gained academic polish in the Ivy League (a master's degree in public policy at Harvard).

Each has roots in the liberal wing of the party (Mr. Clinton as a McGovern organizer in 1972; Mr. Wilhelm as a researcher for the AFL-CIO and aide to Ohio Sen. Howard Metzenbaum). Each has a passion for policy details that complements a zest for political combat.

Mr. Wilhelm, who is still grappling at a personal level with his sudden emergence as a public figure, has even begun to sound like Mr. Clinton.

"Here at the DNC, we are about the business of a permanent campaign on behalf of things like the economic agenda, like national health care, like national service," he says.

"Organizing around ideas is really the only way I know how to do it, and it has the potential of bringing millions of new people to this party who have no particular connection to the party but who begin to see this party as a vehicle for them."

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