BOSTON - If you watch next week's Democratic National Convention, you'll see the face of the party as Sen. John Kerry and party leaders want you to see it.
But there will be only about 5,700 delegates and other party members at Boston's Fleet Center, while there are about 48 million registered voters across the country who call themselves Democrats - and they don't always think the same as the people on the convention stage.
For now, Democrats are unified to an almost unprecedented degree by their intense desire to defeat President Bush. That could help Kerry win the White House.
A sizable majority of rank-and-file Democrats think the war was a mistake - 68 percent in one recent CBS-New York Times poll.
But it obscures divisions among Democrats over issues such as the war in Iraq, leaves unsettled the definition of what it means to be a Democrat in 2004 and could make it difficult for Kerry to govern if he's elected, as he navigates between his party's vote base and the broader population. Bush faced the same problem after running in 2000 as a centrist, then governing as a hard-line partisan.
"There's a bit of a shell game going on," said Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University in California. "What the candidates say and what they do are often very different. That creates alienation and confusion for voters."
The biggest disconnect between ordinary Democrats and their leaders - and between Democrats and the rest of the country - is over the Iraq war.
A sizable majority of rank-and-file Democrats think the war was a mistake - 68 percent in one recent CBS-New York Times poll. By comparison, 51 percent of independents and only 14 percent of Republicans think it was a mistake.
Yet Kerry, who voted to authorize the war, refuses to call it a mistake. Nor will he commit to withdrawing American troops anytime soon, as many antiwar Democrats urge.
"People of good will disagree about whether America should have gone to war in Iraq," the new party platform says. It also says the United States must remain in Iraq: "We cannot allow a failed state in Iraq that inevitably would become a haven for terrorists and a destabilizing force in the Middle East."
Another difference is over marriage for gays and lesbians, an issue put on the national agenda when the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that homosexuals should be allowed to marry. Gay couples in other states now are appealing to federal courts for legal recognition of their marriages.
Forty percent of Democrats think gay couples should be allowed to marry legally, a separate CBS-New York Times poll showed. While less than a majority, such a substantial minority again shows that the Democratic base is split on a deeply divisive issue that could complicate Kerry's handling of it. Kerry opposes gay marriage but favors "civil unions," an approach favored by only 27 percent of Democrats nationally.
Kerry also opposes a proposed constitutional amendment that would block national recognition of gay marriage, and would leave it to states to decide.
On most other issues, Democrats are more in sync with Kerry and their party's leaders. They all tend to support legal abortion, raising taxes on those making more than $200,000, increasing federal spending on health care and education, and regulating business more aggressively to protect the environment.
Democrats trace much of their thinking back to the New Deal of the 1930s and the Great Society of the 1960s, when their party championed redistributing wealth and expanding federal help for the poor. And many of their stands on social issues, and skepticism about the use of U.S. military power, stem from clashes over cultural values and the war in Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s, according to Andy Kohut, the director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
Former President Clinton underscored the point during a recent appearance promoting his new autobiography.
" If you look back on the '60s and, on balance, you think there was more good than harm, then you're probably a Democrat," Clinton said. "If you think there was more harm than good, then you're probably a Republican."
Demographically, the party on display in Boston reflects the rank and file. Nationwide, the Democratic Party is slightly more female than male, and disproportionately minority, older and less than wealthy.
In a benchmark survey last year, the Pew Research Center found that the ranks of self-identified Democrats include:
-36 percent of women and 27 percent of men.
-64 percent of blacks and 36 percent of Hispanics.
-38 percent of those 65 and older, the most solidly Democratic age group.
-36 percent of those with less than a high school education, the most solidly Democratic group by education, and 33 percent of those with a postgraduate college education, the second most Democratic group.
-39 percent of those making less than $20,000 a year, the most Democratic income group.
-27 percent of those making more than $75,000, the least Democratic income group.
The CBS/New York Times Poll of 1,053 adults on Iraq was conducted June 23-27 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The CBS/New York Times poll of 955 adults on gay marriage was conducted July 11-15 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The Pew survey of 1,866 registered voters was conducted July 14-Aug. 5, 2003, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.
© Copyright 2004 Knight-Ridder