This weekend The Washington Post carried a story headlined “Democrats to Focus on Fuel.” The real story is not about their energy plans. In fact, the real headline was the first three words.

Their marching orders even include instructions for how to select locations, recruit participants and set up camera shots.

The story concluded with:

House and Senate Republicans also have energy proposals, although they have yet to coalesce around a single package.

My how times have changed. All of a sudden the Dems are rallying around a message and the Republicans are stumbling. The keys here are that Dems are beginning to think about having any message and then giving their troops directions on how to implement it.

Let’s hope this is only the beginning.

In light of the continuing GOP meltdown, Democrats all over are being forced to confront “The Big Question” about their chances of winning in November. The question that must keep rolling over in their heads and which remains largely unasked, or asked only in jest, is: “How are we going to mess this up?”

For now, the fairest answer may be that nothing the Democrats do or say can make any difference in halting the Republican self-immolation that has been proceeding apace. But there is a real nervousness — and not just in Washington — that the Democratic Party will find a way to turn the good news into bad by the time Election Day rolls around.

Many have reasonably surmised that Republicans, in light of their poor poll numbers, will at some point start playing hardball. They worry that when that happens Democrats will not be prepared to adequately respond. Defeat has a long, bitter aftertaste, and defeatism is a hard habit to kick.

In fact, the idea that Dems don’t have a message is the first hurdle they must overcome, and it will take more than a weekend of talk about gas prices. As reported this morning, the GOP . is developing its November strategy.

Aides point to the president’s last spike in the polls, which came late last year after Iraqi elections and a series of Iraq speeches by Bush. A top adviser said Rove and White House political director Sara M. Taylor are advising candidates not to duck the issue of Iraq but rather to make it a centerpiece of their campaigns.

The Rove-Taylor view is that one-third of Americans agree with liberal Democrats calling for immediate withdrawal and another third support staying the course. The middle third wants a new strategy, but would be leery of pulling out and leaving behind a volatile Iraq, a position strategists believe leaves those voters open to persuasion.

… Perhaps the most important element of the emerging strategy will be to “move from a referendum to a choice,” as Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman put it. Instead of a verdict on Bush, Republicans want to frame the election as a contest with Democrats, confident that voters unhappy with the president will find the opposition even more distasteful.

“We’re moving from a period where the public looks at things and says thumbs-up or thumbs-down, to a time when they have a choice between one side or the other,” Mehlman said.

Much of this is perception. It matters less what the Dems actually propose, but that they hammer home a vision, any vision. Doing so will make it seem there is a choice. If that is the case, the vote will not come done to a choice of visions but competence. The question to ask voters is “Do you have confidence that the GOPers have the competence to make things happen?” And that answer will surely be “No.”

Virginia Democrats must do the same thing if they are to regain the House and Senate in Richmond. At a breakfast meeting this morning with a Democrat thinking of running against an entrenched right-wing Senator, a House member was asked if the Democratic lawmakers have a transportation plan of their own. The answer was no because the leadership was following the old advice about just standing by when your opponent is self-destructing.

That’s a cop out that will hurt in the long run. I look not to just the next election but to the next redistricting. If we are to gain enough seats in ’07 and ’09 to regain control — and control of the redistricting process — then Dems need to develop a message now, test it in many forums, refine it and then implement it through many months of neighborhood meetings, speeches to interest groups, op-eds, letters to the editor, editorial board meetings, speeches on the Assembly floor, etc.

So far, we don’t have the advantage that Warner had. First of all, he had to spend two years cutting the budget. That gave him credibility and an accomplishment that moderates and conservatives appreciated. Right now, Gov. Tim Kaine doesn’t have a lot he can point to as accomplishments. Unless this transportation debates ends with a clear win for him, what will the party have to crow about? And how do you keep the momentum going until ’09?

Dems need to develop messages that will resonate and counter the rather narrow drumbeat of conservative — low taxes and restrictive social policies. Now is the time to start developing them.