Only '08 storm cloud for Democrats: heated presidential race

Obama, Clinton should tone down rhetoric, says Van Hollen, head of the party's congressional campaign committee.

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Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says his party should "beat history" and pick up House seats in the 2008 election if it can avoid self-inflicted wounds.

His biggest worry is the heated presidential primary battle between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, which threatens to leave a major portion of the party disappointed and possibly sitting on its hands in November 2008.

"It is the biggest variable we've got right now ... in the congressional elections," Mr. Van Hollen said Monday at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast with reporters. "This is the one little storm cloud on the horizon."

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With very rare exceptions, a party that posts a major gain – as the Democrats did in 2006, picking up 30 House seats – loses ground in the next election. "I think we are poised in the House, the Democrats, to beat history in this congressional election.... We are in position this time around to actually pick up seats," Van Hollen said.

It is a view shared by nonpartisan analysts. Charlie Cook, of the Cook Political Report, wrote last week that his "pretty conservative" forecast is for a Democratic gain of five to 10 seats, "but the chance of bigger gains is much greater than the chance of smaller gain." One reason for Democrats' bright prospects is that many more Republican House members are retiring this year. An unpopular war and a lagging economy are other factors that tend to work against the party holding the White House.

Despite being pressed by reporters, Van Hollen declined to predict the size of possible Democratic gains in the House. "There is some irrational exuberance on the Democratic side in some of the predictions that are being made with respect to pickups in the House, and I do think it is important to temper those expectations," he said.

Van Hollen, who has represented Maryland's affluent Montgomery County since 2002, said his greatest concern is the tenor – not necessarily the extended length – of his party's presidential primary campaign. "It is the tone, not the time, that is the most important element. Now, obviously, there is a correlation. It appears that the longer it goes on, the worse the tone gets. It doesn't have to be that way ... but it does obviously seem to be trending in that direction. So in that sense, the earlier it is resolved, the better."

He said he supported Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean's call for superdelegates to decide which candidate to support no later than July 1. With neither candidate having enough elected delegates to win, the party leaders who serve as superdelegates will decide who is the nominee.

When asked about prospects for a unity ticket with both Senators Clinton and Obama, Van Hollen said, "I don't think that's going to occur." And he added, "I don't think that is going to be necessary to bring the party together. I do think the key issue is No. 1, to tone down some of the heated rhetoric right now and 2, to make sure that whoever doesn't get the nomination really gets out there and works hard."

As to the level of intensity the losing presidential candidate should bring to the effort Van Hollen said, "I mean more than just lip service to supporting the eventual nominee. I mean getting out there and engaging their supporters."

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