The meaninglessness of sought-after political endorsements

Richard Gephardt, retiring from the presidential race after his defeat in Iowa, hardly had time to lick his wounds before other candidates were on the telephone asking if he would transfer some of his endorsements to them.

The prize catch, with an eye to next Tuesday's South Carolina primary, was sixth-term Rep. James Clyburn, South Carolina's leading black politician. He indicated he will now endorse Sen. John Kerry. Other Gephardt supporters, now available if they choose to make second choices, include House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and actor Michael Douglas.

There is some question whether endorsements, from politicians or celebrities, do very much for a candidate. Howard Dean suffered an ignominious loss in Iowa despite a galaxy of endorsements that included Iowa's leading politician Sen. Tom Harkin, former presidential candidates Al Gore and Bill Bradley, Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., and, on the eve of the caucuses, a well-timed pat on the back - but not an official endorsement - from former President Jimmy Carter.

Brookings Institution scholar Tom Mann told me that no endorsement can counteract the effect of a negative impression created by the candidate, as happened with Dr. Dean in Iowa.

It appears that some leading Democrats tend to endorse whoever seems to be the front-runner in the hope of cutting short the internecine battle and permitting Democrats to rally around a single figure. Thus Dean's support included establishment figures who would normally not back an insurgent.

Senator Kerry won in Iowa and New Hampshire with a less imposing list of backers, who included Sen. Dianne Feinstein, former senator and former presidential candidate Gary Hart, and Aaron Sorkin, the creator of television's "The West Wing." But, the star of "The West Wing," Martin Sheen, endorsed Dean. Important to Kerry's victory in New Hampshire was that his Massachusetts colleague, Sen. Edward Kennedy, not only endorsed him but also campaigned for him.

One endorsement none of the candidates has succeeded in getting is that of former President Bill Clinton. He is too practiced a politician to stick his neck out for a front- runner who could, at any juncture, become a rear-runner. He says he will endorse whoever is the choice of the Democratic convention, at which point his endorsement will be a formality.

So what are endorsements all about? I don't recall any candidate who credited endorsements with winning the nomination. But endorsements are a time-honored tradition good for a small headline and likely to remain with us.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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