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Racing Into 2004 | The Nation

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Racing Into 2004

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Arnie Arnesen does not know exactly when the political wind shifted. It might have been on the day Trent Lott was forced to step down as Senate majority leader. It might have been when she heard a businessman she knew describe President Bush's economic stimulus plan as "crazy." It might have been when she noticed antiwar vigils were being held in the small towns of her home state of New Hampshire. But somewhere between the dark days of last November, when Democrats questioned whether they should even bother to challenge George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election, and late January, when the President's national approval ratings dipped below 60 percent for the first time since September 10, 2001, the mood among Democrats in the first primary state began to take a turn. "Democrats started to get their sea legs," Arnesen says. "We started to realize that we weren't necessarily nominating a sacrificial lamb, that we might be nominating the next President. Then we thought, 'Shit, we're in the middle of a campaign that actually matters and most of us are still in shock. We're still searching and now, very quickly, we have to make one of the most important political choices of our lifetimes.'"

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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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Arnesen, a former state legislator and Democratic nominee for governor who now hosts a popular radio talk show, is right when she says things are moving fast. The New Hampshire primary, once a mid-March event, is set to take place next January 27--the earliest date ever--following the Iowa caucuses eight days before. "We used to talk about the spring primaries, and that now is a joke," says Colorado College political science professor Robert Loevy. While Bobby Kennedy did not even announce his 1968 presidential campaign until mid-March of that year, Steve Cobble, a campaign-trail veteran who helped run the Rev. Jesse Jackson's 1988 race, says, "The way things are headed, it's very possible the Democratic nomination will be settled by early February of 2004." Progressives can still have an impact on the nomination fight, Cobble argues, but only if they recognize that the window for acting is rapidly closing because of schedule changes that have dramatically quickened the pace of presidential politics.

The speedup is entirely intentional. While presidential primaries in a handful of states were high-profile events in the 1950s and '60s, it wasn't until 1972 that control over the nomination process shifted from back-room bosses to caucus and primary voters. Party power brokers always bristled at the change, which created a process that was long, costly, frequently divisive and prone to empowering outsider candidates like Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Jesse Jackson, Jerry Brown and Pat Buchanan. After Republicans collapsed their nominating process into the fast run across Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Michigan that guaranteed the nomination for George W. Bush by late February of 2000 (at a point when Al Gore and Bill Bradley were still sifting through the wreckage of their New Hampshire duel), Democratic leaders decided that they, too, would grease the selection process in hopes of gaining more time for their candidate to shake the money tree before the fall campaign.

Early in 2002, Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe and his allies at the DNC quietly engineered a reworking of the primary and caucus schedule that all but guaranteed the fastest-starting and fastest-finishing nominating process in American political history. Rule changes implemented by the DNC moved the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary dates deep into January 2004--maintaining what Michigan Senator Carl Levin condemned as the "perpetual privilege" of those two small, overwhelmingly white and disproportionately rural states--and then cleared the way for one more "retail" primary in South Carolina, on February 3. With big states and regional clusters of smaller states expected to grab every subsequent Tuesday in February for their primaries, the surviving candidates will then find themselves locked in a high-stakes, big-money-fueled, television-and-tarmac-driven sprint. Within weeks after Iowans straggle out of their midwinter caucuses, voters will choose thousands of delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

Barring an atypical campaign in which relatively evenly matched contenders wrestle to a draw that prevents a clear frontrunner from emerging--a circumstance that last occurred in 1976, when challenger Ronald Reagan dogged President Gerald Ford into the Republican National Convention--the safe bet is that the Democratic race will be over long before most Democrats have begun to focus on it. "Front-loading favors well-known, well-financed candidates," admits former DNC chair Don Fowler, one of the chief architects of schedule changes that added his home state of South Carolina to the axis of electorally influential states.

In the chosen few states, the campaign is already well under way. "I don't think the campaigning has ever been this intense this early. It's crazy out here," Joe Bolkcom, a state senator from Iowa City who is one of his state's most outspoken progressive legislators, said in late January. Bolkcom does not have a lot of money or a lot of Washington connections. But because Iowa will play such a critical role in setting the stage for the 2004 nomination contest, he's one of the hottest commodities in US politics. "Last Saturday some of us went for coffee with Dick Gephardt," Bolkcom reported. "John Kerry had an event at the same time, so I had to miss that. Then on Saturday night we went to see Gephardt, Kerry and Howard Dean in Marion. And on Sunday afternoon, we went to a house party with Howard Dean." Bolkcom is uncommitted at this point, as are most Iowa Democrats, and their choices are being complicated by the fact that new Democrats seem to enter the contest every week. "Gary Hart is making a run around the state this week; and I think a lot of people are still waiting to hear from [Ohio Congressman] Dennis Kucinich. The war is really unpopular here," he added, echoing broad interest in the prospect that the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus might enter the contest as a peace candidate. "I don't know how long people are going to wait to decide. Everyone recognizes that we have a chance here to influence the whole campaign--in Iowa and nationally. That puts some pressure on us. Because this is all starting to move so fast, people are starting to sign up. It's a strange thing: The race just seems to be starting and already everyone is talking about how the time frame is getting pretty narrow."

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."

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.

Al Sharpton is a more complex case; he's passionately antiwar and solidly progressive on most issues, and, in a field that tends toward wonkishness, Sharpton is quick on his feet and fun on the stump. But because of a well-documented history of legal troubles that would become major media fodder if his campaign ever gained ground, no one thinks he is going to be nominated. That hasn't halted efforts to prevent a "Sharpton surprise" in South Carolina, where Gore's exit means that there is no white candidate with established appeal to African-American voters. "This thing about Carol Moseley-Braun maybe entering the race is nothing more than a 'let's head off Al Sharpton' move by people at the top in the Democratic Party who want to make sure that if Al start's polling well they can move some money in and pump up another black candidate," says a Democratic consultant who has run a number of campaigns in states with large African-American voting blocs.

Polling data and interviews with several dozen activists in early primary and caucus states suggest that of the announced candidates, Kerry and Dean are drawing the most attention from progressives. Kerry is the clear front-runner in New Hampshire, in part because he comes from neighboring Massachusetts but also because he has spent freely and well on organization. He is also running hard in South Carolina and Iowa. "There is a lot of feeling about how Democrats need a candidate who looks presidential, and Kerry looks presidential. He looks like a winner. He's also a Vietnam veteran, which gives him a lot of credibility when he criticizes Bush on foreign affairs," says Cohen. Despite the fact that he voted for the Senate resolution authorizing Bush to launch a war against Iraq, Kerry has been honing a critique of the Bush Administration that is increasingly aggressive. He has also gotten points for being the first member of the Senate to call for Trent Lott to step down as majority leader.

But the candidate who seems to be getting the highest marks for distinguishing himself as someone who is ready to battle Bush on Iraq, tax cuts for the rich and healthcare is Dean. "Howard Dean's the one who really is starting to define himself, and that's something a lot of Democrats are looking for--there is such a feeling that Democrats did badly last year because they failed to define themselves," says New Hampshire's Arnesen. The buzz increased after the Linn County Democratic Party dinner in late January, where Kerry, Gephardt and Dean unofficially kicked off the Iowa caucus campaign. "The first standing ovation of the night was when Dean got up and said he was against the war. Everybody was on their feet," says David Osterberg, a former state legislator and 1998 Democratic Senate nominee. "This is Iowa, and Iowa has a long tradition of supporting peace candidates. Dean's tapping into that."

Still, Osterberg is far short of signing up for Dean. Like a lot of Iowa progressives, he says he is waiting for Kucinich to make a decision. Kucinich has been getting pressure to run since he delivered an impassioned antiwar address to the Southern California chapter of Americans for Democratic Action almost a year ago. "Kucinich is closer to my politics," he says. "And it's not just the war. My sense is that he's the best of the bunch on labor issues." That explains why the Iowa AFL-CIO has invited Kucinich--along with the declared candidates--to address its annual legislative conference in mid-February. Labor isn't making any endorsements at this point. But if Kucinich makes a President's Day announcement before the union crowd in Des Moines, the AFL-CIO's Mark Smith thinks he could reshape the race. "I'm just foolish enough to think that somebody with a message might even win this thing," says Smith. "Kucinich has a message. He gave a speech on January 5 where he talked about how we've got money to bomb bridges over the Euphrates River in Iraq but not to build bridges over the Cuyahoga River. That's kitchen-table language he's using. People can wrap their heads around that. I'm not saying that it's Kucinich who will do it necessarily. But it's somebody, and if somebody delivers that message in this race there are a lot of people--not just in Iowa but around the country--who'll get excited."

Not all the excitement would be favorable, however, if it's Kucinich. His record of casting antiabortion votes in Congress has drawn sharp criticism from abortion-rights supporters, who are well organized in early caucus and primary states. Though Kucinich has sought to ease tensions around the abortion issue in recent months by suggesting that as President he would not seek to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision, New Hampshire's Arnesen says, "His record on abortion is bad news with a lot of women."

Arnesen says she keeps hearing people in New Hampshire bring up Wesley Clark, the former NATO commander in Europe, who has been toying with a candidacy. "You can't label him a peacenik, because he's a retired general," she says. "But he's this very effective critic of Bush's policies." When she's finished talking about Clark, Arnesen starts in on Gary Hart, then stops herself. "I definitely wouldn't mind a few more choices, because I'm not hearing any of these announced candidates say what needs to be said yet," she says. "But, you know, this thing is so tight. And the decisions Democrats in New Hampshire and Iowa are being asked to make are so important to the future of the country and the world that I know we can't drag this thing out too much. If we don't get serious pretty quick, the race is going to be finished and we're all going to be standing around asking, 'What happened? How did we end up with this loser as the nominee?'"

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