Finding the best woman to run for the White House

Two more contenders for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination jumped into the race last week - Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri. They join the three - Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, and the Rev. Al Sharpton - who already have their candidate banners waving in the wind. And it won't be long before Sens. Tom Daschle and Joe Lieberman join these men who would be president.

But where are the women who would be president?

First off, there's a pipeline problem on the distaff side of presidential politics. Governors' mansions are great springboards to the presidency, but the last election added only one new female governor, for a total of six. Of the four who are Democrats, two are unlikely to run in 2004 since they were newly elected in 2002, and Michigan's governor was born outside the US, and so is ineligible to run.

That leaves Ruth Ann Minner, the first woman elected governor of Delaware, who will be finishing her first term in 2004. If Howard Dean can run from Vermont, which has just over 600,000 people, Mrs. Minner can run from Delaware's base of nearly 800,000. But unlike Mr. Dean, Minner is up for her first reelection in 2004. She's unlikely to pass up a second term for a long shot at the presidency.

In the Senate, there are 13 women senators. Nine of them are Democrats, but four will need to stay focused on their reelection campaigns in 2004. Mary Landrieu had a bruising battle in Louisiana this year that sent her back to the Senate with a narrow margin and too weak a base to consider a run for national office.

That leaves four Democratic women senators who could run for president with the safety of a Senate seat to return to. Maria Cantwell of Washington State doesn't carry many electoral votes into the fray, but she is a smart, engaging, centrist businesswoman who represents the economic future of America - the high-tech industry. But Senator Cantwell's a first-termer who has to focus on fundraising every day if she wants to hold on to her hard-won seat when she runs again in 2006. The same calculation holds true for Michigan's first termer, Debbie Stabenow.

That narrows the field to Dianne Feinstein of California and Hillary Clinton of New York. Ms. Feinstein, who was elected to the Senate in 1992, has presidential panache. She's the first woman to serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee. She's the chair of the Technology and Terrorism Subcommittee and a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence. She comes from a state with 54 electoral votes, the most in the nation. California is also a deep pool for finding wealthy presidential contributors, and Feinstein has proven superb at raising money.

Political pundits like to talk about Feinstein as a shoo-in for the vice-president slot. But there's no reason for her to take a back seat to the boys already on the bus.

Senator Clinton has repeatedly vowed to finish out her first term, which ends in 2006. But she would be foolish to pass up the 2004 opportunity, especially if President Bush's economic plans start to crash and burn and his war whoops lead to body bags. Clinton would leap to the front of the pack on name recognition alone. She's a terrific fundraiser and New York voters would forgive her if she made a credible but unsuccessful run. She would return to the Senate as a more powerful member and be a battle-tested contender for 2008.

Beyond governors and senators, women in the House of Representatives such as Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, or Maxine Waters of California have the stature, smarts, and authority to take a shot at the presidency.

One or more of these women, or perhaps a woman not yet on the radar screen, needs to take the leap into the presidential race. After all, if the best man for the presidency in 2004 is a woman, there's only one way we'll ever find out - women have to run.

Robin Gerber is a senior scholar at the University of Maryland's Academy of Leadership and author of 'Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt Way.'

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