WASHINGTON, Feb. 10 - Ever since the November election, Democrats have known that the hottest V-word is not "veto" or "Viagra," it is "values." Now, as hundreds of the party's elite descend here to select a new chairman and chart a course for the future, Democrats are enlisting a bevy of consultants - church leaders, a marketing guru from Silicon Valley and even a linguist - to redefine themselves and discover a message that will sell at the polls.
To George Lakoff, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who spoke at a retreat of the House Democrats last week, striking a resonant chord may mean a simple twist of the language used by the ruling Republicans.
"Republicans talk about tort reform, but nobody talks about the tort justice system," Mr. Lakoff said. Of the Democrats he said: "I urged them to talk in details of their values, but they're not used to talking that way. They're used to talking in terms of programs, and that's a disaster."
So the use of the word "values" or value-laden phrases has proliferated on Capitol Hill these days, spinning out in a new morality play in which everything, from Social Security to the driest spending cuts, is cast in terms of right and wrong. Democrats are freely quoting the Bible, as they did in a recent letter to President Bush. Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, denounced the White House budget this week as "immoral" and had earlier offered up "old-fashioned moral values" in his response to the president's State of the Union address.
On Friday, a left-leaning evangelical Christian author, Jim Wallis, will visit Democrats for the second time in recent weeks, this time to instruct Senate press secretaries about how to "discuss the budget in terms of moral values," according to an invitation to the closed-door event. Meanwhile, Richard Yanowitch, a former Internet company executive, is borrowing the business concept of branding to help Democrats come up with what he calls a "new vision for governing."
In the House, the Democratic leadership last week tapped Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the son of a minister, to lead a "faith working group" to encourage lawmakers to sprinkle references to God and religion into their speeches. Mr. Clyburn sees plenty of possibilities. "Look in the Book of James," he said, using the biblical admonition to feed the hungry to rail against Mr. Bush's proposed cuts in food stamps.
Beyond the search for a unifying theme or a clear message - the absence of which many Democrats believe cost them the November election - Democrats have another goal: to turn the values debate away from what Representative David R. Obey, Democrat of Wisconsin, calls "below the waist" morality issues like abortion and same-sex marriage and toward the programs and policies that Democrats support.
"The Republicans are trying to corner the values debate, and we Democrats want to expand the values debate," said Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, the chairman of the Democratic Governors' Association. "We're talking about values including better schools, access to health care, personal behavior, and I add a Western value, and that is protecting God's creation, which is land and water."
The effort is playing out against the backdrop of a much deeper struggle, one that goes beyond language to the more fundamental question of what the Democratic Party should stand for. As Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor, prepares to take the helm of the Democratic National Committee after a formal vote on Saturday, Democrats have been engaged in a bruising internal battle over whether to shift toward less absolute positions on issues like abortion, as Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, the New York Democrat, appeared to do in a recent speech urging tolerance of abortion opponents' beliefs.
Some Democrats say that internal squabble is misguided. "Right after the election, people really misinterpreted this moral value thing," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who recently examined the roles values played in the White House race. "People assumed moral values meant abortion and gay marriage. That is completely unsupported by the data."
Instead, Mr. Mellman said, the election turned on "a sense of shared values"- whether voters believed Mr. Bush or his Democratic opponent, Senator John Kerry, shared their moral compass. So Mr. Mellman, who advises Mr. Reid, has been urging Democrats to do a better job of explaining the moral underpinnings of their political stands. But he would not share strategy memorandums or talking points.
"There is not some central values speech stamp," he said, "where everybody's got to send their speech to the values office."
To Republicans listening to the Democrats' oratory, sometimes it sounds that way.
"They've learned the lessons of the battle but not the war," said Frank Luntz, a Republican strategist who helped formulate the language behind the "Contract With America," a manifesto of principles that helped his party reclaim the House in 1994. "The battle is that you have to be able to say 'God' and not flinch. They are picking up the language, but they don't have the genuine emotion behind it."
Mr. Lakoff said authenticity was essential. "I'm not advising them to quote the Bible," he said, "unless they really know the Bible."
Still, some Democrats are flinching.
"I'm Catholic; it's an intensely private part of my life," said Representative Ellen O. Tauscher, Democrat of California. "Does it aid me in my decision-making? Yes. But it's mine and mine alone, and it's one of the few things I still have. Not everything needs to be known."
Others say that in today's sound-bite society, Democrats need to say more. "If you are silent on these issues, you will get defined by the other person," Mr. Clyburn said, "and I think that's what's happened to us."
The Democrats' advisers say they do not expect any transformations overnight, either in the language Democrats use or the way voters react to it.
"We don't need just a few Bible verses or some cheap God talk," said Mr. Wallis, who is the founder and editor of the Christian magazine Sojourners and the author of a new book, "God's Politics." He added: "This is more than a language issue. It's a content issue. So I said to the Democrats: 'This isn't going to be a sprint. It's going to be a marathon.' "
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company