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Published: Wednesday, 7/2/2003

Best-case scenarios for Democrats who would be president

CONCORD, N.H. - The kids are out of school, the tourists are out in motorized battalions, the sounds of summer can be heard at the lakesides, along the mountain paths, and in the outlet malls. Yet with all this noise, this is really the quiet time here; the political talk that will fill the union halls, veterans' hospitals, school auditoriums, and banquet rooms is for another season. This is the time for thinking, calculating, strategizing - and maneuvering.

The quiet time in any New Hampshire Primary campaign is still, to be sure, an important time. It is when plans (and, just as important, mistakes) are made. And at the heart of the plans - and the mistakes - is the sales pitch. It's not made on the stump; that's performance art, better suited for January. It's made on the street. And what's heard on the street right now is the case being made for each of the candidates.

Here, then, is the best-case scenario for each of the leading contenders:

w Howard Dean. The doctor-turned-Democratic-governor of Vermont now is free of office and free to range the ideological hills and valleys of his sister state. So far his campaign has had high points (his challenge to his fellow Democrats to remember their heritage) and low points (his national television appearances). But the main point is that a politician who seems more suited to making house calls than House addresses is still in the running - a measure not so much of the candidate's grace but of his grit. He has an asset that only Bob Graham also possesses: He has governed something, even if it is a teeny-weenie state (smaller, to take an example not entirely at random, than Arkansas).

w John Edwards. This 50-year-old former trial lawyer is the senior senator from North Carolina. He has almost no experience - and almost no detractors. His appeal is as the fresh face and as an attractive face. He'll be compared to the young Bill Clinton (though Mr. Edwards has been in the Senate only since 1999, and Mr. Clinton had a dozen years as governor). His biggest challenge: avoiding the notion that he ought to be on the 2004 ticket not as the presidential nominee but as the running mate.

w Richard A. Gephardt. He places third in the latest meaningless poll, soundings that nonetheless are plumbed for meaning here in New Hampshire, site of the first presidential primary. No matter. His best case is based not on a Democratic model nor even on a 21st-century model. For the Gephardt faithful, and there remain many from his 1988 campaign, the strategy can be distilled into four digits: 1996. That's when the Republicans, facing a popular incumbent (Bill Clinton), handed their nomination to a faithful party regular (Bob Dole) who was a heavy favorite in Iowa (which Mr. Gephardt won in 1988). If Mr. Gephardt, who is from Missouri, prevails in Iowa again next January, he could ride that here to a strong second-place finish or a healthy showing in third. He could win Michigan on the strength of the United Auto Workers' support, begin to attract money, and then wear away his opponents.

w Bob Graham. The case for the former governor of Florida and the state's senior senator has nothing to do with his vigilance against terrorism, his fluency with government at all levels, his mastery of the details of politics. It has everything to do with Florida, which three years ago had everything to do with electing George W. Bush president. Florida is, of course, a big state, and its convention delegates are a vital prize. But Florida is also a symbol of the Democrats' distress. They believe they won the election in 2000 and thus must find redemption in 2004. Mr. Graham - accomplished, articulate - is the personification of the Democrats' distress. He'll remind voters of that in every outing.

w John F. Kerry. The Massachusetts senator will struggle with Mr. Dean of Vermont for the good-neighbor vote and will probably win it. He's the most polished, if not the most passionate, debater in the field, and his positions may surprise independents in the way, and in the frequency, in which he swerves from standard Democratic rhetoric and positions. Having the most formidable stable of strategists has its advantages, but those advantages are oftentimes outweighed by the disadvantages; in short, smart Democrats seldom like each other, so one of Mr. Kerry's goals must be to preside over the inevitable fight within his own ranks while also prevailing in the fight among his rivals. He'll be the target of most of those rivals, and the way he responds to the challenges they hurl his way will determine whether he's the frontrunner in late January.

w Joseph I. Lieberman. He's well known and, perhaps most important, not widely disliked. He knows that Democratic nomination fights are always ideological battles, often affected by activists on the party fringes, frequently leaving the nominee trying to convince the nation that he's not the guy the Democratic interests groups thought they nominated. Only one leading Democrat in two decades has run against that model. He's Bill Clinton. Mr. Lieberman, like Mr. Clinton, identified with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, aims to be the second. In a crowded race, he's the moderate among the ideologues.

The prognosis: This is a nomination battle that will be shaped not only in New Hampshire but also in Washington, Baghdad, Islamabad, and wherever Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden are hiding. Even in hiding, they may provide the hidden key to how the Democratic fight is resolved - and whether Mr. Bush is re-elected.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.



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