Doing the 2004 shuffle

Democratic jockeying for presidential run begins in earnest, with new and old faces.

In the wake of last week's midterm losses, Democrats have been offering a wealth of opinions as to what they must do differently to defeat President Bush in 2004.

But when asked to name the party's most promising presidential candidate, many respond with a long pause. "I'd say Roy Barnes's chances are fading," offers former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, displaying a gallows humor typical among Democrats these days. (Mr. Barnes, the Democratic governor of Georgia who was touted by many as presidential material, was ousted Tuesday in a stunning upset.)

With the midterm contests over, the 2004 campaign is officially under way – and to many, Mr. Bush's chances of reelection are looking stronger than ever. The US House, Senate, and White House are under Republican control for the first time since the 1950s, and Bush himself has been widely credited for his party's wins.

By contrast, Democrats are left searching for a standardbearer among a group of leaders who are now associated with losses – congressional as well as presidential – or from a smaller-than hoped-for field of promising governors. Of course, many Democrats insist that they are still optimistic about their chances, pointing out that the political climate could certainly change over the next two years, and that the country continues to be narrowly divided.

But most also agree that last week's defeats have not exactly improved the chances of most 2004 Democratic hopefuls. "There's no one who naturally emerges strengthened from this," says Mr. Podesta.

A few potential candidates may now find themselves looking fairly tarnished. Many Democrats are already blaming congressional leaders Richard Gephardt and Tom Daschle for last week's losses. Congressman Gephardt, who campaigned tirelessly for Democratic candidates this cycle, only to see his party lose seats, is stepping down from his leadership post – though he is reportedly still seriously considering a White House run.

And while Senator Daschle may find some consolation in the fact that the candidate he campaigned hardest for – fellow South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson – eked out a win, talk of a presidential bid has lately given way to rumors of retirement.

"I'm not sure about them," says South Carolina Democratic chairman Dick Harpootlian, when asked about Gephardt and Daschle. "They're both good men. I'm not denigrating their integrity – but they just never could punch through. And when they did ... it sounded whiney," he adds. "We've got to have somebody who can stand tall."

He sees other likely candidates, such as Sens. John Edwards, John Kerry, or Joseph Lieberman, as better positioned.

Still, they too could be affected by last week's losses, as all three spent a fair amount of time on the campaign trail. And with the Senate now in GOP hands, they'll have less opportunity to advance an alternate agenda to Bush's.

On the other hand, outside the nation's capital, the party's current crop of governors – typically fertile ground for future presidents – seems to offer even fewer rising stars. California Gov. Gray Davis, who has been mentioned in the past as a possible candidate, won his race last week by a surprisingly small margin against an inexperienced opponent whose campaign was plagued by missteps.

Moreover, several Southern Democratic governors actually lost their seats, putting a damper on the party's hopes of finding another Bill Clinton anytime soon. And Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who is already running openly for president, saw his state's governorship fall to the GOP.

Ironically, the candidate with perhaps the biggest gubernatorial win this year – Michigan Democrat Jennifer Granholm – is ineligible to run for president because she was born in Canada.

Gary Hart, anyone?

Indeed, the party's presidential field outside of Washington seems so thin that Gary Hart's name has been floated lately – though the former presidential candidate seemed to dismiss the rumors, telling a recent audience that he doesn't want to run for office but does want to "make a contribution." Given what happened to Walter Mondale's attempt to resurrect his political career last week, Mr. Hart may have had second thoughts.

The remaining likely Democratic candidate – the elephant in the room, really – is Al Gore. The low profile he kept throughout most of the year could now prove helpful, given how the 2002 campaign turned out.

At the same time, the former vice president has on a few occasions offered a more resounding critique of the Bush administration than many other 2004 hopefuls, particularly on the subject of Iraq, which could also give him a boost. Mr. Gore is poised to step further into the public eye this month, as he and his wife begin promoting a new book on families. Although not associated with this year's losses, Gore is blamed by many Democrats for the 2000 presidential defeat (though he did win the popular vote).

And Republicans don't exactly seem worried about the prospect of another Gore candidacy – though they try not to act too excited, either. "He should follow his conscience," said Republican National Committee chair Marc Racicot at a recent Monitor lunch. "I'm neither delighted nor afraid."

Mr. Harpootlian, for his part, dismisses talk of Gore as the most likely Democratic candidate. "There is no front-runner," he says. "Not this year."

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