WASHINGTON – After five years of war and two failed attempts at the White House, Democrats appear no closer to consensus on the attributes of their ideal presidential candidate in 2008. Will he or she have to be anti-war, hawkish on defense or a little of both?
The August upset in the Connecticut Democratic primary, in which Sen. Joe Lieberman lost to a virtually unknown anti-war challenger, businessman Ned Lamont, produced analyses at length about how the Democratic Party might have to consider a left-of-center anti-war candidate for its next presidential run.
A week after the primary, however, a Quinnipiac University poll found Lieberman leading among voters in his bid to run as an independent, 49 percent to 38 percent over Lamont, with much higher favorability ratings over the former businessman and anti-war candidate.
Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series on prospective presidential candidates in 2008. Look for the second part on Republicans tomorrow.
These mixed messages put Democrats right where they started, pacing back and forth wondering how public perceptions of the war in Iraq and the overall War on Terror, as well as congressional Republicans' and President Bush's handling of it, should shape their overall message and the one belonging to the 2008 nominee.
"I think there is some interesting positioning going on among the Democratic elite on the issue, and I think some are going back and seeing how this plays out," said Mark Wrighton, associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.
Like Republicans, analysts say Democrats are plagued by a major obstacle when it comes to the presidential contest: the favored candidates of the grassroots, the more ideological base of the party that is apt to vote in greater numbers in the primaries, may be unelectable on Election Day.
"The more pragmatic Democrat has a better chance for the general election," said Gary Rose, political science professor at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut. "You can't just be anti-war [and expect] to win the general election."
Paradoxically, theories vary on whether New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, who has yet to announce her long-anticipated run for the presidency, can win the nomination or the general election, despite her seemingly pragmatic approach to politics and competitive numbers in hypothetical polls.
Still, the former first lady is considered her party's frontrunner. With $22 million on hand, she is far ahead of her rivals in fundraising, organization, name recognition and the all-important buzz.
"If we had a meeting and asked people to talk about [the Democratic primary for 2008], I know right now all they would be talking about is Hillary — will she run or won't she run," said Cliff Wilson, chairman of Pennsylvania's Delaware County Democratic Party.
"I think she has an excellent chance of being the nominee," he said. "[But] I have real concerns about her ability to win [in the general election]."
Wilson said he believes many voters will oppose Clinton because she is married to former President Bill Clinton, who was tried in an unsuccessful impeachment attempt near the end of his presidency. Others say the senator is divisive, which could limit her ability to sway moderate voters in swing states or garner support among conservative Democrats in the red states.
"She has the money and the organization. The question is her skills and personal appeal," said Sean Evans, a political science professor at Union University in Tennessee. "Hillary is a very polarizing figure. A lot of people will claim she is not going to be electable."
On the issue of the war, Clinton, who has positioned herself as a national security authority on the Armed Services Committee, has staunchly defended her vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq. But she also has forcefully criticized how the war has been handled and recently called for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
"She can be perceived as anti-war but at the same time be perceived as strong on defense, and that is what I think is going to take to win the general election," Rose said.
But, the same activist base of the party that helped to propel Lamont to victory — the largely anti-war "netroots" who contribute to an array of blogs — has been expressing doubts about Clinton for some time. They argue the strategy of "triangulation," which has been credited for her husband's success but hasn't seemed to work with Democratic presidential nominees since, might not get Clinton through the primary.
"Hillary has much of the professional political class locked up, and many big donors have given to the max. But she is not inspiring people at all," said Dave Johnson, a fellow at the Commonweal Institute in California and host of the Seeing the Forest blog.
Besides her war stance, Johnson said, Clinton has angered Democrats with her seeming pandering to the right, for instance, saying she supports a statute criminalizing flag burning even though she voted against a constitutional ban when it came up in the Senate.
In most polling, Clinton remains on top. An August Gallup Poll found that a majority of Americans believe Clinton has the best chance of beating a Republican in 2008.
Thirty-five percent of respondents said she was the Democrats' best bet compared to 24 percent who said former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards would be a winner. Seventeen percent backed former Vice President Al Gore and 13 percent pointed to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the party's presidential candidate in 2004.
In a poll of her own New York constituents in August, Clinton lost when pitted against two popular GOP prospects for 2008: former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain. A Siena Research Institute poll found that Gore would do better — but still lose — against Giuliani or McCain.
With those kinds of responses, the conversation invariably leads to, if not Clinton, then whom?
It's anyone's guess whether or not "a fertile environment" exists on the Democratic side "to have a governor come out of nowhere, to fit the bill, the same way that Clinton and Carter did," said Terry Madonna, public affairs professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania.
Clinton was governor of Arkansas when he was nominated in 1992. Jimmy Carter headed Georgia before running for president in 1976.
At least three Democratic governors have expressed interest in running in 2008. Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack have all achieved some prominence outside of their own state.
"Privately, [Warner] is the Republicans' worst nightmare," said John Gizzi, political editor for the conservative Human Events magazine. "Warner could be a (Bill) Clinton-plus — he's got a business background and a very strong marriage. And he can say he is a true moderate."
Warner's biggest draw, said Evans, is he was elected governor in a Republican red state and made it work. "[He] can turn a red state blue," said Evans. "He is electable, and to his credit he's hired a good staff and he's raised a good deal of money."
Democrats still have the option to choose from candidates who have already run and lost in past presidential elections.
Gore, who should have won the presidency in 2000, according to many Democrats, is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, particularly among the grassroots who love his dedication to environmental issues and his critique of the War on Terror.
"I'm a huge Gore fan," said SeeingtheForest's Johnson. "Most of the blogosphere are now. Almost any of us would do anything to get him to run, and would work very hard to help him."
Rose said Gore still has appeal that bridges both the moderate and liberal wings of the party, but "he would have to start running now and I don't see any signs of that."
On the other hand, Edwards, who hails from North Carolina and ran unsuccessfully for vice president in 2004, has been unofficially testing the waters. He has kept open his political action committee, One America Committee, and has been visiting all of the requisite primary and caucus states. He also apologized for his Senate vote to authorize the Iraq war.
"I think the Democrats might give Edwards another look," said Rose. "Edwards can be a viable candidate and people liked him very much, and again, coming from the South … he remains a strong contender."
Kerry has also been sending out signals, though he seems to attract less enthusiasm since his loss to Bush in 2004.
"A lot of people are disappointed that he lost. They feel he didn't do certain things right," Wilson said.
Wrighton said it might be difficult for Gore, Kerry or even Edwards to get the party's blessing.
"Parties usually nowadays are not thrilled with running defeated candidates from past elections," he said.
A host of senators besides Clinton are considering running despite the conventional wisdom that senators never get elected president. Sens. Joseph Biden of Delaware, Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Evan Bayh of Indiana are all prospective candidates. Freshman Barack Obama of Illinois has also been named as a rising star with potential presidential appeal.
Obama earned kudos after a June speech to a conference of liberal faith-based organizations in which he peppered his remarks with spiritual and religious references and chastised fellow Democrats for not embracing faith and reaching out more to religious groups and evangelical Christians. He said Republicans cannot claim ownership of faith.
Acknowleging that Obama, the only black member of the Senate, espouses many of the qualities Democrats are seeking in an ideal candidate, Evans said he may need more experience as a lawmaker.
"It's too early — he needs to develop his political skills and everything else," said Evans, who added that Edwards also suffered as a result of being a first-term senator when he reached for higher office. "[Obama] has amazing rhetorical skills; he is a charismatic person. He just needs more seasoning first."
Bayh too stands out among analysts as good general election material, being a moderate from a Midwestern red state.
"He is kind of my dark horse candidate. He has some of the same things going for him as Mark Warner does," Evans said.
"The biggest strike against Bayh is the charm deficit — he is smart but has a problem connecting with people," Evans continued. But "if he can get on a roll, he has a good deal of potential."
Wrighton said that all candidates are pondering whether to tailor their messages to the current anti-war mood in the party or whether to think ahead to the general election without knowing what voters might want to hear in 2008.
"That's the roll of the dice — when you go out to exercise your position," he said.