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Seeking influence, lib activists mimic conservatives' tactics | (KRT) Liberal activists, frustrated by what they see as powerful conservative voices in the media - including Rush Limbaugh, Fox News Channel and the Heritage Foundation - have begun creating institutions they hope will compete with conservatives in churning out appealing policy ideas.

The new creations range from a think tank headed by President Bill Clinton's former chief of staff to a nascent liberal radio network to a legal society designed to offset the influential Federalist Society. There is talk of a progressive television network, and the Internet-based grass-roots group has gained thousands of adherents and paid for ads such as those calling President Bush a "MisLeader."

In the world of money, liberal billionaire George Soros is beginning to take up the role on the left that has been filled on the right by the Scaife, Coors, Olin and Bradley foundations.

The flurry of activity reflects a Democratic despondency over Republican control of the White House and Congress. Many liberals view the array of conservative think tanks, foundations and publications as a big reason the GOP has managed to keep its ideas before the public.

"The conservatives have built a huge infrastructure, reaching from the national level down to state and local levels, to develop and disseminate ideas," said Douglas Hattaway, a one-time spokesman for former Vice President Al Gore. "There has been a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth about the sorry state of the Democratic Party."

But the emergence of new liberal organizations suggests that "the progressive constituency behind the party is regrouping very quickly," said Hattaway, who is advising the Center for American Progress, the liberal think tank headed by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta.

Liberals hope the new institutions will spark a return to a time when ideas such as Medicare and environmentalism swept across the political scene as bold new concepts before yielding, in recent years, to proposals such as welfare reform and tax cuts.

This trend marks the latest battlefront in a long political and cultural war between the right and left. Many conservative institutions that dominate Washington were created after the 1960s out of a belief that liberals controlled academia, the press and Hollywood.

"Those groups formed in response to what the conservatives saw as the almost complete dominance of the policy arena by liberals," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, a lobbying group. "Conservatives consciously went about creating those institutions."

The Heritage Foundation was created to bring together conservative scholars, and, joined by other think tanks, it has been key in hatching conservative ideas from welfare reform to the flat tax and Social Security privatization.

Meanwhile, donors such as Richard Mellon Scaife have poured money into conservative causes. Publications such as The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard and The Washington Times publicize right-leaning ideas. Talk show hosts - among them Limbaugh, Oliver North, and G. Gordon Liddy - have earned passionate followings.

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Regnery Publishing, a conservative publishing house, thrived with such books as "Absolute Power: The Legacy of Corruption in the Clinton-Reno Justice Department" by David Limbaugh, Rush's brother, and "At Any Cost: How Gore Tried to Steal the Election" by Bill Sammon.

To liberals, this was a frightening array of weaponry - though many conservatives still feel overmatched, saying dozens of environmental, abortion rights, civil rights and other activist groups throw their weight behind liberal causes.

But few doubt that the once-upstart conservative institutions now wield influence. They helped bring Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush to Washington. Those leaders in turn brought the groups' ideas into the corridors of power.

Members of The Federalist Society, which plays host to speakers and disseminates conservative legal ideas, are powerful figures in the Bush administration, including Attorney General John Ashcroft. Bush recently chose The Heritage Foundation as a venue for a major address on the Middle East, and he emphasized the group's influence.

That is the environment that liberals are trying to fight. Podesta, an intense man who delivers his sentences in a forceful barrage, is the force behind the Center for American Progress, a think tank designed to imitate and to fight the Heritage Foundation.

The center will draft policy proposals, hold conferences and schedule media briefings. It already sends out a daily e-mail, usually lambasting a Bush administration policy. "We respect the need for debate," Podesta said. "But our goal is to win, to turn the nation substantively away from a radical conservative policy agenda."

Others, such as Peter Rubin, were spurred to action by the Supreme Court's decision in 2000 paving the way for the Bush presidency. Rubin, a Georgetown University law professor, founded the American Constitution Society after the ruling crystallized his view that the federal courts tilt wildly to the right.

"We saw in the legal arena a complete absence, on the moderate and progressive side, of an institution like The Federalist Society that had been so successful on the far right," Rubin said. "The thirst for this is enormous." His group has spread to 90 of the nation's 160 law school campuses.

Perhaps no venue has been so dominated by the right as talk radio, a fact that struck Tom Athans, a longtime political operative married to Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., as preposterous.

"If radio is supposed to be a public trust - and it is - then why does only one viewpoint exist in talk radio predominantly, which is the conservative point of view?" Athans asked.

"Roughly half of the people in this country voted for Al Gore, and a little less than half for George Bush. To assume that all of those people want to listen to is conservative radio is on its face is ridiculous."

So Athans, along with veteran broadcaster Paul Fiddick, founded Democracy Radio, which plans to produce a liberal call-in show by January, to be followed by other programming.

Progress Media, a Democratic investment group planning to start a liberal radio network, says it is close to buying radio stations in five major cities, The New York Times reported Sunday.

Executives with the newly formed company said late last week that if all went as planned they would have the network running by early spring. The executives said the stations they are acquiring reach all radios in five of the 10 largest media markets: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Boston.

Much of the money for the company initially came from Sheldon and Anita Drobny, wealthy Chicago Democrats who originated the project but sold much of their stake to Evan Cohen, a New York investor.

In the publishing world, Democrats could cite no liberal challenge to Regnery, but they noted that liberal authors have found new success. Michael Moore's "Dude, Where's My Country?" has topped the New York Times bestseller list, with Al Franken's "Lies (and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them)" not far behind.

Despite all this activity, some question whether simply creating new groups will reinvigorate the left. Some conservatives suggest the public is simply more receptive to their message, and that liberalism has run out of fresh ideas.

"Podesta may have it backward," said Keene, of the American Conservative Union. "He thinks that if he hires a lot of people and collects a lot of money, that will produce the ideas. But he is correct in his assessment that they need something and they are getting whipped."

And even some Democrats worry that it will be hard to develop a clear-cut message, one that has the resonant clarity of the conservative mantra of tax cuts, small government and strong defense. Liberals' positions often seem more divergent, they say.

Podesta did not dispute the difficulty of creating a unified message.

"That's a challenge," he conceded. "By working together under one umbrella, we believe that we can provide a more coherent, a stronger, a simpler message, and one that the public can understand."

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© 2003, Chicago Tribune Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services