The early line on former Virginia Governor Mark Warner’s surprise decision to scrap an expected bid for the 2OO8 Democratic presidential nomination is that this is good news for New York Senator Hillary Clinton, the presumed frontrunner who shares many of Warner’s centrist stances, and Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, the other Democratic Leadership Council acolyte who is preparing a campaign.
“It’s good for Hillary,” bubbled Steve Elmendorf, a key aide to John Kerry’s Democratic presidential campaign of 2004.
“The biggest winner might be Evan Bayh,” countered Jennifer Duffy, who watches the race for the Washington-based Cook Political Report.
Don’t buy either line.
Aside from the fact that Warner was the rare Democrat who in a post-9/11 election had taken a major position away from the Republicans in a southern state, and then governing successfully enough to leave office with high approval ratings, most potential primary voters knew nothing about him. His stands on the issues — to the extent that he had articulated them — were never what made Democrats around the country interested in Warner’s serious-minded and well-financed bid for the nomination. Rather, it was the popular notion that Democrats are best positioned to win in the presidency if they nominate candidates with track records of winning in states that are below the Mason-Dixon line — following in the footsteps of former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton in 1992.
The theory’s a bad one. Democrats should be looking for presidential prospects the Midwest and West — regions where the party’s support is expanding and has the potential to tip previously Republican states — rather than the conservative climes of Dixie. But if there is one certainty about the Democratic Party, it is that the partisans are slow to let go even of the most worn-out strategies.
So the search for a southerner will continue.
For that reason, the beneficiary of the Warner exit will be former North Carolina Senator John Edwards.
That’s actually good news for progressives, since Edwards stands well to the left of both Warner and Clinton on most issues. The 2004 Democratic nominee for vice president has renounced his vote to authorize President Bush to take the country to war in Iraq, encouraged efforts to hold the administration to account for warrantless wiretapping and other assaults on basic liberties, strongly opposed conservative nominees for the Supreme Court and made fighting poverty his trademark issue.
If Clinton runs, she will be the frontrunner. The primary question will become: Who’s the anti-Hillary? The calculus will be both ideological and regional. Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, with his consistent record as an opponent of the Patriot Act and the war, will have the upper hand on the ideological score — although there is a good chance that Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the party’s hapless 2004 nominee, will try to make a play from the left. Regional arguments may be made by westerners such as New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and, perhaps, Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer.
But Edwards, positioning himself as a progressive with a southern background and potentially a southern appeal, is set to compete on both the ideological and regional fronts. And his task will be a good measure easier now that Warner’s exit has cleared the southern flank.
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