Only three months after the end of an exhausting, expensive, and seemingly endless campaign, an expanding group of Democratic heavyweights and relative unknowns is already testing the White House waters for 2008. If you think this is an extremely early start even for what seems to have become a perpetual pursuit of the Presidency, you're absolutely right.
So what has gotten into those die-hard Dems? For one thing, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean's run at a hostile takeover of the Democratic National Committee has jolted some contenders out of their post-election torpor. First off the starting blocks: Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Kerry. Clinton is charging out to shape her image before her enemies -- or the media -- do it for her. And much to everyone's surprise, 2004 nominee Kerry is acting more like battle-tested hero than washed-up loser.
In the early scramble, Clinton is hurrying to reintroduce herself as a common-sense, family-values centrist. On Jan. 24 she told family planning advocates in Albany that abortion was a "sad, even tragic, choice" and endorsed teen abstinence programs. While repeating that abortion should remain legal, she said Democrats should work to reduce the number performed. Since George W. Bush's 2004 victory, Clinton also has talked of the importance of faith in her life. And she has continued to remain hawkish on Iraq while backing anti-terrorism funding for projects ranging from port security to antimissile technology. But can she pull off an ideological facelift? "It's not easy to do when you have a long track record and product identity," says Raphael Sonenshein, a political scientist at California State University at Fullerton.
Still, should Clinton seek the nomination, she starts out as the prohibitive favorite. She'll have deep pockets, a cadre of enthusiastic supporters, and the Clinton political machine. Early polls give her a double-digit lead over any possible foe. "If Hillary's running, who's going to beat her?" asks Emory University political scientist Merle Black.
Well, Kerry seems to fancy himself the comeback kid. In late January he stepped back into the public eye with forceful questioning of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a high-profile speech on health care, and an appearance on Meet the Press. He says he hasn't ruled out another run in 2008, and he has nearly $10 million in surplus funds and a list of 2.9 million names.
Kerry's former running mate, John Edwards, would face a bigger challenge taking on Clinton -- especially since his tepid performance as Vice-Presidential nominee has some party insiders wondering whether he is tough enough to slug it out with the heavyweights. Still, Edwards is quietly working the rubber-chicken circuit. He is scheduled to appear at a Feb. 5 fund-raising dinner for New Hampshire Dems.
Many New Democrats who say that the party will never reclaim the Presidency without appealing to centrist swing voters are touting Indiana Senator Evan Bayh. In a reverse-Clinton move, the decidedly moderate Bayh reached out to party liberals by casting 1 of just 13 dissenting votes against Rice's confirmation. And those who think a Washington outsider has the best chance are talking up a handful of "red state" governors, including Mark R. Warner of Virginia and Tom Vilsack of Iowa. Mindful that the last two Democratic Presidents were Southern governors, Sonenshein notes, "a governor from a small state is a better candidate on paper than a senator from a big state." The trouble for all these would-be contenders is that they don't have the name recognition, fund-raising abilities, or national organization of Clinton or Kerry.
There's still plenty of time for a dark horse to steal the spotlight. But to succeed, it will take an extra hard run to catch the fast-out-of-the-gate favorites.
By Richard S. Dunham