Another sleeper in a Georgia governor?

There's a successful governor in Georgia who just might be the best candidate the Democrats could run for president in '04. He is Roy Barnes, of whom Jimmy Carter's brilliant campaign strategist, Hamilton Jordan, said to me the other day: "I'd put Barnes up against any governor in the country." Mr. Jordan added, "Jimmy Carter gives Barnes high marks for governorship."

No, Mr. Barnes isn't talking about making a presidential run. His focus now is in a race to succeed himself as governor – where he seems likely to win but where he certainly wouldn't help himself by indicating he had any thought of not finishing out his four years.

Another key political figure from the Carter years – who talked only on "background" – pointed out the advantageous position Barnes would be in if he decided to seek the presidency: "The only Democratic presidents who have been in the White House since Kennedy are from the South – and two have been governors." And he added: "It would be unnatural if you are a Southern governor and not thinking of running for president."

I do not know Governor Barnes. He may somehow be "unnatural" and not giving a try for the presidency the slightest thought. Jordan says he sees Barnes frequently and has never heard him talk national politics. He says Barnes does often speak of how he loves being governor – where an overwhelming number of his initiatives have passed.

Still ... the lure to run for the top national spot might become irresistible for this highly personable fellow – this time or next time around.

Why tout Barnes? Well, it certainly isn't anything personal. It's just that after reading about a study of the presidency that pointed out that in all of US history only two senators – Harding and Kennedy – had been able to make it straight from the Senate to the White House – it got me thinking.

The current field of likely candidates is weighted down with senators: Joseph Lieberman, John Kerry, John Edwards, and Tom Daschle are not hiding their aspirations. Some say Sens. Christopher Dodd and Joseph Biden are looking at the possibility of making the big run.

So why are no Democratic governors making moves toward the presidency – or, at least, making many waves? Don't overlook one such governor – Vermont's Howard Dean – who has been traveling around the country, making speeches, raising money, and with his intentions for seeking the White House completely out in the open.

Mr. Dean is highly regarded by fellow governors: He has been an able governor and he is articulate.

Indeed, he seems to be trying to do what Jimmy Carter did years ago when he got out early in his campaigning and, surprising everyone, nabbed the nomination and the final prize.

Maybe Dean could pull it off. But he is from such a small state, with few delegates to the convention, that it doesn't seem likely. The convention would more quickly turn to a governor from a bigger state and from the South: Enter Barnes.

No, I'm not overlooking Gray Davis, the Democratic governor of California. He might emerge as a presidential candidate. But he must first win in November and a recent poll shows Davis's "positives" are very low.

Back to Governor Barnes. I find friends of his saying he is "well-spoken" and "sensitive to injustices." Doubtless he has critics who see him in another light. But he holds a high popularity rating in the polls.

Ideologically Barnes appears to be a lot like Jimmy Carter. "He's a moderate-conservative – like Carter," says one observer.

But if Barnes is going to run a Jimmy Carter-type of presidential race he had better get a move on soon.

Jimmy didn't have to worry about a gubernatorial race – he had become an ex-governor. So as early as three years before the 1976 presidential election, Carter was coming to Monitor breakfasts and letting it be known that he would be a candidate.

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