Washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Monday, February 24, 2003; 11:30 AM
Campaign cattle calls, like the one at last week's Democratic National Committee winter meeting, are generally among the most staged of political events - candidates show up delivering early versions of their stump speech, while the ready-made cheering sections, often bused in by the candidates themselves, burst into wild, maniacal cheering at every bland applause line.
On Friday and Saturday, seven of the eight announced Democratic presidential candidates (all but Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who is still recovering from prostate cancer surgery) showed up at the Hyatt Regency hotel on Capitol Hill to test-market their messages to the party faithful. Most of the speeches followed a general pattern: I'm the son/daughter of . . . (Insert Joe Lunchbox occupation: a postal worker/mill worker/milk man/etc.); I'm a regular Joe/Jane who represents the interests of The People; I've come very far in life from my youth as one of The People; President Bush is not one of The People and should be replaced by someone who is. And so on.
But there was important news amid the speeches: the extent to which the looming war on Iraq is going to play a role in the 2004 Democratic primaries. The early conventional wisdom in Washington is that, at this point, there are at least two tiers of candidates. In the first tier, there are Sens. Kerry, Joe Lieberman (Conn.), and John Edwards (N.C.), and Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.). The second tier would be led by former Vermont Sen. Howard Dean, and also include the Rev. Al Sharpton, former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun and Rep. Dennis Kucinich.
One of the things the first tier has in common - other than proven abilities to raise cash, national profiles, and first-rate campaign staffs - is that they all supported the resolution last year authorizing President Bush to use military force against Iraq. In their speeches, these candidates seemed almost apologetic about their positions that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein must be disarmed by force if necessary. Each of the resolution supporters is now stressing that they oppose Bush's handling of the issue, while supporting his ultimate goals - removal of Hussein/disarmament of Iraq.
"Now I know that there are a lot of you who don't agree with me about this," Edwards, son of a mill worker, said, relegating his Iraq position to a few words seemingly tacked on to the end of his speech. "I do believe that Saddam Hussein needs to be disarmed, including, if necessary, the use of military force. He has chemical and biological weapons. He's used them in the past. We cannot let him have nuclear capability."
Lieberman, who sought to establish his bona fides by talking about his travels to Mississippi in 1964 to fight for the right of blacks to vote, said of Iraq: "Now, my friends, to protect the safety of the American people and the credibility of the United Nations, Iraq must disarm - peacefully if possible, by force if necessary. Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction must be destroyed sooner than later, because sooner or later, if we do not, they will be used against us."
Gephardt, son of a milk truck driver, jumped into the Iraq issue near the beginning of his speech, seemingly to just get it out of the way: "Before I start, I want to address the question of foreign policy in Iraq, because I know it's on everyone's mind. I believe we must disarm Saddam Hussein, and I'm proud that I wrote the resolution. It helped lead the president to finally make his case to the United Nations."
Silence. Well, almost. One fellow in the back yelled, "shame."
The other four candidates who spoke made their opposition to Bush's policy on Iraq a major issue - and at least one of them will likely enter the first tier of candidates because of it, given the hardening opposition to a military strike among the party rank and file. At this point, that candidate seems to be Dean, a physician with an unabashedly liberal message, strong speaking ability, good looks and aggressive style.
Dean's speech on Friday was among the best of the bunch, if for no other reason than its audacity. He muttered only one or two lines of pleasantries before getting right to the punch, challenging the leadership of his party (and ostensibly two of the people, Lieberman and Gephardt) who spoke before him.
"What I want to know is why in the world the Democratic Party leadership is supporting the president's unilateral attack on Iraq. What I want to know is why are Democratic Party leaders supporting tax cuts. What I want to know is why we're fighting in Congress about the patients' bill of rights when the Democratic Party ought to be standing up for health care for every single American man, woman and child in this country. What I want to know is why our folks are voting for the president's No Child Left Behind bill that leaves every child behind, every teacher behind, every school board behind and every property taxpayer behind (applause) I'm Howard Dean, and I'm here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party."
Wild applause/standing ovation.
The Dean camp placed a crew of a few dozen over-hyped, over-caffeinated, whistle-blowing, sign-waving college kids next to the section roped off for reporters (just so we wouldn't miss all the love Dean was getting from the crowd!). But it soon became apparent that Dean really had struck a chord with many in the greater audience, who stood and cheered him a couple times.
Contrast Dean's speech with Lieberman's, which seemed flat and drew among the least applause of the seven speeches. Lieberman's voice borders on the monotone, and his attempts to spice it up are, well, kind of funny.
At one point, taking a stab at a pep rally delivery style, Lieberman exhorted the crowd of several hundred people: "Two years ago, we were promised, most of all, a better economy. Has George Bush kept that promise?" Almost as if wakened from a slumber, a dozen or so people figured out this is where they were supposed to answer back, and shouted "No!" Lieberman, back to monotone, continued, "Right you are. No, no, no. And that's why George Bush must go."
If this were a contest for Orator-in-Chief, Lieberman wouldn't make it past Iowa and New Hampshire, and Sharpton would be the next president of the United States. Only the controversial Sharpton outshone Dean oratorically (with Edwards pulling up a close third). Sharpton's speech, delivered seemingly without notes, was full of hilarious one-liners that framed serious assertions - that the Democratic party had strayed from its roots and that President Bush was a captive of big-money and right-wing interests.
Perhaps the best-received line of the entire two-day speech fest was Sharpton's comment about Bush's opposition to the University of Michigan's affirmative action program, in which he suggested "the most preferential president in history has been George Bush. He went to undergraduate school under preferences. He went to graduate school under preferences. He's the ultimate recipient of a set-aside program. The Supreme Court set aside a whole election to make him the president of the United States."
There were other rhetorical high points, most notably from Edwards. The North Carolina senator has had to endure some early jabs from his fellow first-tier candidates, whose aides are working overtime to portray the first-termer as not ready for prime time. There have been stories in recent weeks about the candidate's stumbles on the Confederate Flag issue in South Carolina (See Edwards Gets Bailed Out on Flag Debate, Feb. 12) and about the campaign's misleading use of telephone area codes (See The Reliable Source, Feb. 11)
But Edwards has proven game on the stump. The White House has already tried to make an issue of Edwards's career as a successful trial lawyer. And in his speech on Saturday, he seemed eager to engage the president on that issue.
"So I want to be as clear as I can be about this: I am proud of my career. I am proud of the children I represented. I am proud of the cases I won," Edwards said. "And so, Mr. President, if you want to talk about the insiders you fought for, versus the kids and families that I fought for, here's my message to you, Mr. President: Bring it on."
With the exception of Lieberman, most of the candidates seemed determined to establish their liberal credentials, bashing Bush in particular for pursing trillions of dollars in tax cuts that they said clearly benefit the wealthy.
For instance, Gephardt stressed his proposals for pension reform and tax credits to provide universal health care, while deriding Bush as a captive of the rich and powerful.
"Don't you think it's time we had a president in the White House of the United States of American who understood the life experience of ordinary Americans out there trying to give their kids help?"
It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the next year or so. Yesterday, just one day after the DNC meeting wrapped up, some of the party's most influential leaders, who were in town for the National Governor's Association meeting, were questioning if the party was drifting perilously to the left.
In a story in the Washington Post today, Dan Balz and David Broder reported on the unease among some of the Democratic governors, who feared that the candidates will go too far with the class warfare rhetoric. (See Democratic Candidates, Playing to Two Audiences, Feb. 24.)
"I worry about what sounds like class warfare and hostility to tax cuts," New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson told Balz and Broder. Similarly, Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner said. "National Democrats have got an enormous cultural mountain to climb to reach out to southern and rural voters. My message was economic growth and was more an appeal about how not to get left behind in an information age. It was not us-versus-them."
Both parties have experienced this angst in the last few presidential elections. As more and more voters have identified themselves as moderate or independent, candidates have struggled over how to appeal to their parties' bases, without turning off the mushy middle. The current and previous presidents, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, proved to be masters at balancing those competing forces, and owe their election victories to their abilities to repudiate the negative stuff that tainted their parties' reputations, while still offering red meat to the people who vote in presidential primaries.
Whether any of the candidates battling out for the Democratic party mantle have what it takes in that regard remains to be seen.
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