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Racing Into 2004 | The Nation

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Racing Into 2004

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In the handful of states like Iowa where candidates must actually talk to rank-and-file Democrats--who, polls consistently show, are more progressive than their Congressional leaders and presidential nominees--there is a rare opening to nudge the process to the left. "If you're an active union member or a farm activist or somebody who is concerned about the war, and if you live in Iowa, you really can invite one of these candidates to come meet with you and a few dozen of your buddies," says Mark Smith, the president of the state AFL-CIO in Iowa, where only about 100,000 people will participate in the Democratic caucuses. "We've got the only thing they want more than campaign contributions--caucus votes."

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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The dynamic might have been different. If 2000 nominee Al Gore had decided to seek the 2004 nomination, his name recognition, fundraising capacity and popularity among key Democratic constituencies would have made him the likeliest beneficiary of a front-loaded process. That prospect caused some potential Democratic contenders to hold back, as did Bush's still daunting poll numbers. But with Gore's exit from the competition and Bush's ratings dip, things changed fast. There are now six announced Democratic candidates: Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts, John Edwards of North Carolina, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, former House minority leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean and New York activist Al Sharpton. Then there is a long list of potential candidates: Senators Bob Graham of Florida, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Joseph Biden of Delaware, former Senators Gary Hart of Colorado and Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois, retired Gen. Wesley Clark and Kucinich.

Already a predictable hierarchy is developing. "The first primary is money," says Kerry, who is winning that competition, after having transferred $2.5 million from his Senate campaign account into his presidential coffers. Kerry and Edwards have, so far, been the most aggressive and savvy fundraisers, jetting around to events in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, New York, Washington and other cities where Democratic donors congregate. Gephardt, who transferred $2.5 million from his House campaign account to his presidential account, and Lieberman are on the same track--although Gephardt is trying to tap more labor money, while Lieberman's criticisms of the entertainment industry have made him a slower starter in Hollywood. If he runs, Graham, who like Kerry and Edwards has substantial personal wealth, will have little trouble raising serious money from his native Florida. And even Dean looks like he could be a money player, having secured the backing of former DNC chair Steve Grossman, a millionaire businessman with close ties to Bill Clinton and the former President's donor network. Kerry, Edwards, Lieberman and Gephardt are all expected to raise the roughly $20 million that each will need to survive a setback or two on the campaign trail; but even they know the cash spigot will shut off immediately if they fail to make headway in the first caucus and primary states. (Just ask Bill Bradley what second-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire add up to.)

If the first race is for money, the second is for staff in key states: All the announced contenders are signing up managers with big rolodexes and credibility among party activists. "In most states there are only a handful of people with the connections and the experience to run a successful primary or caucus campaign," says Cobble. "Lining them up is as important as fundraising." So far, Kerry looks to be leading in the personnel primary, too. The Massachusetts senator's warm relations with South Carolina Senator Ernest "Fritz" Hollings--who calls Kerry "solid" while dismissing North Carolina neighbor Edwards as inexperienced--and his careful courting of South Carolina Representative James Clyburn, the most prominent African-American elected official in a state that will provide the first real test of sentiments among African-American voters, have opened doors there. Kerry has scored coups in New Hampshire, where his campaign has attracted many of the key figures from the campaigns of former Governor Jeanne Shaheen, and in Iowa, where his campaign will be run by John Norris, a popular and experienced progressive who ran Jesse Jackson's 1988 campaign in that state and has a long history of leading grassroots farm, labor and peace campaigns. Amusingly, the veteran Iowa Democratic activist who managed Norris's unsuccessful 2002 Congressional campaign, Jeani Murray, has signed on to manage Dean's run. When Murray served as director of the state Democratic Party--a post Norris also held--she developed a database of 2000 Democratic caucusgoers, which Dean, Kerry, Gephardt and Edwards have purchased.

The "it's a small world" character of the competitions in the first caucus and primary states is often overemphasized in media coverage that seeks to identify front-runners by analyzing the extent to which candidates actually "know" local Democrats. The candidates play to this penchant on the part of reporters by trumpeting the number of trips they have made to the key states. Dean's leading in this department: He has made two dozen visits to New Hampshire, a dozen visits to Iowa and seven visits to South Carolina--a schedule that has earned him coveted comparisons with Jimmy Carter, the last obscure former governor to parlay a "we try harder" campaign into the nomination and the presidency. Even candidates who don't visit that often have ways of making local connections; for instance, Edwards's political action committee loaned 123 computers to Democratic organizations in Iowa's counties and printed 800,000 campaign leaflets for the party's 2002 legislative contenders. "Right now, the Democratic presidential candidates don't know that there are any states other than New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina. They're all looking for ways to make connections," says New Hampshire State Senator Burt Cohen, who is likely to be his party's US Senate nominee in 2004. "When I ran for re-election to the State Senate in 2002, most of the announced candidates contributed to my campaign and offered to help however they could. I think I'm a pretty good candidate, but you know they wouldn't be doing that if I was running in Minnesota."

The jockeying for position by announced and potential contenders has actually had the effect of keeping the process relatively open. When every major presidential candidate contributes to a candidate or plays up to a labor activist in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina, that makes it possible for the recipients of this attention to choose relatively freely. Thus, because of the sped-up process, there is more pressure to pick than certainty about whom to go with. "The people in what Paul Wellstone called 'the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party' are looking hard for a candidate," says New Hampshire's Cohen. Some candidates, announced and otherwise, will never be in serious contention for the votes of the left-leaning Democratic loyalists, who could play a definitional role in early contests. Cohen echoed a common sentiment when he said, "Lieberman's coming out so strongly for the war is certainly not helping him among Democrats." Edwards is not seen as so consistently conservative on economic and foreign-policy issues as Lieberman, but the North Carolina Senator's votes on some trade issues and for war with Iraq have hurt him; he also lost a lot of momentum after some weak TV appearances. "Edwards is coming off as a lightweight; and if Graham gets in as a senior senator from an important Southern state, I just don't see how he gets any traction," said a senior Democrat who has worked in a number of primary campaigns in South Carolina, a state that's seen as must-win turf for Edwards. There's little debate that Gephardt must run first in Iowa to be a serious contender, but there is mounting evidence that he will have a hard time doing that. The old line on Iowa was that Gephardt would benefit from a base among union members, but his four failed attempts to re-establish a Democratic majority in the House and his coziness with Bush during the 107th Congress have hurt him badly.

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