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Published: Sunday, 2/23/2003

White House Watch: Democrats who would be president

WASHINGTON - Democrats everywhere should count themselves mighty lucky that the country is preoccupied with Iraq, North Korea, Iran, snow, floods, and drought. Otherwise, perplexed voters might start scratching their heads.

Despite the enormous public uncertainty about a likely war with Iraq, few of the eight Democratic candidates - except for Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio - are publicly demanding that there be no war.

Despite a massive new budget deficit, most Democratic candidates are talking about new programs and more ways to spend money. Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri and ex-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean want to give every American health-care coverage, a noble but costly idea.

Despite widespread unhappiness with President Bush's environmental policies, few Democratic candidates - except for Mr. Dean and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts - have bothered to learn much about environmental issues.

Despite the loss of 2 million jobs during the past two years, few Democratic candidates have announced specific plans on how to create new ones.

Despite criticism of Mr. Bush's rhetorical skills, few of the Democratic candidates are gifted orators - although they have mastered the cliches. Consider this pearl from Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina: “I believe we need to offer a vision for America anchored in our enduring values but energized with new ideas. We should be proud of what we believe - steadfast in our principles, but unfettered in our thinking. We need to tell it like we see it, and offer real solutions.”

Despite worry that the Bush Administration is not adequately protecting the country from terrorism, few Democratic candidates - except for Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut - are making much of an issue of it. He wants to dump the tax cut and spend more money on training, communications, and information.

Despite a loud chorus that the Bush Administration is beholden to special interests, such as the wealthy, no Democrat can win national office without the support of labor. And Democrats will have to endure squabbling between the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York and former ambassador and one-term Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois, who will fight each other for black voters.

Waiting in the wings to announce their candidacies are at least three more Democrats, former NATO commander Wesley Clark, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida - who, like Mr. Kerry, is recuperating from major surgery - and former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, who ran unsuccessfully in 1984 and 1988 and is interested in terrorism.

So, what do all these people have in common? They are not well known. To gain attention and funds, they probably will go on the attack - against each other. And getting heard will be extremely difficult in a nation that is living in fear of the colors orange and red. Foremost, they are battling a president whose job approval is still high despite recession, loss of jobs, a country on a high state of alert for more terrorism, and a country nearing war. While many don't want war, Mr. Bush still is seen by many as a strong, resolute leader. Persuading voters to oust him won't be easy for Democrats.

Of course, the President's father skidded from riding high in the polls at 91 percent after the 1991 Persian Gulf War and lost the 1992 election to a once little-known governor from Arkansas. In politics anything can happen, as another once little known-governor from Georgia can attest. The next president might not even be on the radar yet. So the many who would be president will be out raising money and trying to out-shout the others during the next year.

But politics have changed since Sept. 11, 2001. As much as domestic issues might seem paramount to voters, in time of war and national peril they think differently. The Democratic candidates who have said little about foreign affairs are in danger of either being seen as trivial or offering no serious alternative to Mr. Bush's policies. In a country that voted 51 percent Republican to 46 percent Democrat in the 2002 midterm elections, Democrats need to offer a clear choice with a compelling message to get them over the hump of more voters now identifying as Republicans.

The problem for Democrats is that it is more unclear than ever what they stand for in the 21st century. There are so many striations of moderates, liberals, and conservatives in the party that some seem more like Republicans, currently defined by Mr. Bush.

What Democrats need is a frontrunner who can define the party for its members. Right now there are a lot of little specks on the horizon, but nobody stands any taller than the others.



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