WOULD-BE PRESIDENTIAL candidates, like good reporters, live by one simple credo: don’t wait.
Five months after the swearing in of President George W. Bush, a slew of Democrats are embracing that philosophy as they test the waters for a presidential run in 2004. While former vice-president Al Gore and his 2000 rival Bill Bradley are mulling comeback campaigns, others have already gotten busy. Among potential challengers for the next Democratic presidential nomination, the top tier consists of Senate majority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota; Senators John Edwards of North Carolina, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, John Kerry of Massachusetts, and Joseph Biden of Delaware; and House minority leader Richard Gephardt. Rounding out the mix are governors Gray Davis of California and Roy Barnes of Georgia.
Gone are the days when a senator could toy leisurely with the idea of running for president and get in a year before the race, the way Senator John McCain tried to do. With each four-year cycle, the lag time between presidential bids shortens. And this type of early action isn’t really anything new. Although Jimmy Carter seemed to come out of nowhere in 1976, politicians and journalists know that the peanut farmer had been working Democratic activists for years. Al Gore ran as a Southern candidate in 1988 to prepare for a future campaign. And by the time Bill Clinton addressed the Democratic National Convention in the same year, he had already helped found the Democratic Leadership Council and positioned himself for an eventual run. (His convention keynote speech — well, that was a different matter.)
Of course, a candidate can’t be guaranteed the nomination through hard work alone: former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander worked feverishly between the 1996 and 2000 presidential campaigns, but he never resonated with voters or GOP powerbrokers. Still, a candidate can guarantee failure by starting late. That’s one reason John Kerry didn’t get into the 2000 race; he knew he couldn’t catch up after the long marches Bush and Gore took toward the 2000 nomination. When they faced challenges — Bush from McCain and Gore from Bradley — they were able to fall back on organizational support and money to quash their rivals.
Adding to the accelerated pace of the presidential campaign these days is the perception that Bush is a weak president who gained power illegitimately after losing the popular vote. Recent polls suggest that Bush is taking a beating. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll has Bush’s approval rating at 50 percent, and a New York Times poll shows Bush’s popularity down seven points since March.
“In 1994, you could tell the day after the election that Bob Dole was running for president two years out,” says Vaughn Ververs, the editor of the Hotline, a prestigious political newsletter that features daily updates (“White House 2004”) on the activities of presidential hopefuls. (Get a glimpse of Hotline at www.hotlinescoop.com.) “This time around, you’ve known who is running a week after the Supreme Court decided the election.”
With this timetable in mind, the Phoenix has created a 10-step plan, aided in part by Hotline reports, for candidates who hope to have half a prayer in the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries.
1. Get thee to Iowa
If you happened to open a copy of the June 24 Boston Herald, you would have spotted our own junior senator, John Kerry, making a foray into Iowa to attend Governor Tom Vilsack’s annual picnic in Mount Pleasant. Less well noticed was that the Massachusetts senator helped Vilsack raise funds — a chit he might try to collect in 2004.
Kerry isn’t the only Democrat interested in Iowa these days. Even before Kerry’s visit, former New York Knick and 2000 presidential hopeful Bill Bradley returned to the state to attend a basketball tournament. Tom Daschle, now a Senate bigwig, traveled to Iowa in May for the ostensible purpose of helping Iowa senator Tom Harkin raise money. In March, John Edwards, who is emerging as a media darling, set foot in Iowa for a second time to receive an award from Drake Law School. The visit gave him an opportunity to stress his success as a plaintiff’s lawyer — admittedly, not the most beloved profession of the American people. But at a time when Democrats like to brag about fighting for working people, this could have a more positive resonance as well. During his career as a personal-injury lawyer, Edwards won jury verdicts totaling $152 million, including a $25 million verdict in 1997.
Yet it seems that Gephardt took the cake: he catered to the needs of Iowa voters without even going there. Even before President Bush announced his energy policy in May, Gephardt invoked ethanol, of all things, in his critique of the policy. Political wonks know that ethanol is an alternative energy source made from crops that grow in — guess where? — Iowa. “We understand that Bush’s energy plan may not address ethanol as an alternative fuel in our overall energy policy,” said Gephardt. “We think that’s a big mistake.” It’s a double mistake if you’re a Democrat going into the 2004 Iowa caucuses.
2. Get thee to New Hampshire
Fortunately for New England’s political reporters, the Granite State is still the place to be for prospective presidential candidates. This is also a boon to Kerry, who hopes to do what Paul Tsongas, another Massachusetts native, did in 1992: use local connections for a head start on the nation’s first primary. Kerry hasn’t been up there yet this year, but he already established some visibility with New Hampshire voters when he campaigned in the state for Gore last year. And it doesn’t hurt that the senator has friends in New Hampshire’s high places: last election cycle, for instance, Kerry raised $100,000 for Governor Jeanne Shaheen.
Gephardt has his eye on New Hampshire too. He’s already snagged one of Bradley’s former New Hampshire campaign staffers to work for his campaign committee, and he visited the state in early June to talk with Democratic activists and to raise money. He’s also been getting the word out to Democratic voters: on May 22, Gephardt did an interview with talk-show host David Brudnoy of Boston’s WBZ, which has a strong signal throughout New Hampshire.
Others have also been making their presence known. Biden spoke at a local St. Patrick’s Day breakfast, signaling that he’s putting himself in play for 2004. In June, Lieberman speed-dialed New Hampshire activists, and he’s now scheduled to address a Democratic gathering in Coos County come November. Edwards has not yet made it to New Hampshire, but don’t be surprised if that changes soon.
There’s always talk of de-emphasizing the New Hampshire primary, but if this crop of prospective candidates is any measure, it doesn’t seem to be taking hold. Why would it? If you’re an ambitious politician with enough fire in the belly to be campaigning now, you can’t gamble on the notion that New Hampshire won’t be a factor next time around.
3. Devise a Southern strategy
Senator Zell Miller of Georgia caused a stir with a June 4 New York Times op-ed titled “The Democratic Party’s Southern Problem.” “Had Mr. Gore won any state in the old Confederacy or one more border state, he would be president today,” wrote Miller. “Our party can’t let this happen again.”
To that end, Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe is looking at Southern sites for the 2004 convention, including several cities in Texas. And prospective presidential candidates have been flocking South. Of course, two of them already live there: Barnes of Georgia and Edwards of North Carolina. In his Times piece, Miller praised Barnes for taking down the Confederate battle flag as Georgia’s state flag. And Barnes took center stage at South Carolina’s Jefferson-Jackson Day in May. If Democratic Party activists succeed in rescheduling the South Carolina primary to immediately after the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary, Edwards will have an advantage not unlike Kerry’s with regard to New Hampshire.