No one is going to mistake Chris Dodd for a frontrunner in the race for the Democratic presidential nod. The senator from Connecticut is running fourth in the latest poll of voters in his home state. And, while the senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee may be a well-respected man about Washington, he is rapidly learning that doesn’t count for a whole lot in Keokuk or Dixville Notch.

But Dodd has hit on a campaign theme that is worthy of attention.

He has in recent days made the defense of the Constitution and the restoration of the rule of law central to his outreach to voters.

“One of the saddest days I’ve spent in public life, in the United States Senate, occurred last fall when the Senate of the United States passed the Military Commissions Act,” Dodd says of the Bush-administration sponsored law that eliminates Habeas Corpus protections and retreats from traditional commitment of the U.S. to respect the Geneva Conventions.

“I want to see us get back [to being] a nation that supports the rule of law,” argues the senator, who has proposed legislation that would restore Habeas Corpus protections to detainees, bar information acquired through torture from being introduced as evidence in trials, and limit presidential authority to interpret the meaning and application of the Geneva Conventions.

Dodd is not alone among the candidates in having cast a vote against the Military Commission Act of 2OO6. Both New York Senator Hillary Clinton and Illinois Senator Barack Obama joined him in doing so, as did Deleware Senator Joe Biden and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich — although, notably, Republicans who should have known better, especially Arizona Senator John McCain and Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, backed it.

But Dodd’s “Restoring the Constitution Act of 2OO7″ initiative does distinguish him from the field. He is choosing to make his commitment to addressing the damage done by the Bush administration to basic civil liberties central to his campaign — talking about the issue in his campaign swings through early primary and caucus states, featuring his commitment at the top of his campaign website and launching a separate www.restore-habeas.org site that highlights a video of the candidate discussing the roots of America’s commitment to the Geneva Conventions and the rule of law, as well as a set of tools for involving citizens in the fight to restore the Constitution.

Dodd’s proactive approach to Constitutional matters that often get short shrift in presidential contests — particularly Democratic primary races — distinguishes him from the field. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, has signed on as a co-sponsor. So has the chairman of the Constitution subcommittee, Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, who it should be noted has a better record as a defender of civil liberties than anyone in the Senate, including Dodd. But neither Clinton nor Obama has yet done so.

Every presidential candidate chooses his or her issues with an eye toward enhancing their electoral appeal, and Dodd’s effort is no different. Dodd is well aware that grassroots Democratic activists have been especially, and appropriately, concerned by the Bush administration’s assaults on the rule of law. But even if there is a measure of political calculation in his timing and his focus, it is meaningful that a senior senator, who will be a key participant in all the pre-primary debates, has chosen to put the defense of the Constitution at the top of the agenda.

No matter how he fares in the caucuses and primaries, Dodd’s initiative is consequential. An essential element of any presidential campaign season involves the defining of issues, and the 2OO8 race offers an opportunity to remind Americans that they do not have to sacrifice liberty for security. As Dodd says, “I take a backseat to no one when it comes to protecting this country from terrorists. But there is a right way to do this and a wrong way to do this. It’s clear the people who perpetrated these horrendous crimes against our country and our people have no moral compass and deserve to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But in taking away their legal rights, the rights first codified in our country’s Constitution, we’re taking away our own moral compass, as well.”

George Bush and his allies have made the Constitution an issue in the 2OO8 race. Chris Dodd deserves credit for recognizing that fact and addressing it legislatively and politically.

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John Nichols’ new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders’ Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson hails it as a “nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe ‘heroic medicine’ that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to ‘reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'”