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Archive for Saturday, December 30, 2006

Underdog Democrats pursue White House

December 30, 2006

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— Clinton, Obama. Obama, Clinton. From the TV talk shows to the political blogs, all the buzz is about the possibility that Democrats could put the first woman or first black in the White House.

Thus the public can be forgiven if they are generally unaware that there's a pack of a half dozen or more other Democrats who hope to break through the hype during the next year to win the nomination.

These second-tier candidates may look more like the presidents who have previously occupied the Oval Office, but know they will have to run a new kind of campaign to get there in 2008.

The emergence of Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, of New York, and Barack Obama, of Illinois, at the top of the field - although neither has formally announced their candidacy - shows that the next Democratic primary will be an untraditional campaign with a new set of rules for everyone who wants to play. And that's not just because of the demographic barriers they would break.

Clinton is a former first lady with an unrivaled network of connections honed over decades in political partnership with her husband. Obama's skyrocket to top-tier contender after just two years in the Senate shows certain factions of the party are eager for a fresh face who can take her on.

Their appeal has already chased at least one other potential candidate from the race. Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh withdrew earlier this month saying he was just a David who couldn't win against the party's Goliaths. But many others are sticking to their plans to run, with similar strategies for rising to the top, according to interviews with campaign strategists.

The first part of the underdog strategy counts on the dynamics of the race to shift in the coming months. The expectation is that as voters look closer at the candidates, they will focus on flaws in the top two.

Clinton is a divisive figure who is disliked by almost as many voters as those who embrace her, which could mean trouble in a general election. Obama may be charismatic, but he doesn't have much experience to be president.

The potential candidate best positioned to shake up the top tier is former Vice President Al Gore, whose movie about global warming and opposition to the Iraq war give him a natural platform to enter the race, Democratic strategists said.

Gore has said he has no interest in running for president in 2008, but he has been careful not to completely rule out a bid.

John Edwards, the 2004 vice presidential nominee, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, of Ohio, have already announced their candidacies. Other potential candidates include New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Sens. John Kerry, of Massachusetts, and Joe Biden, of Delaware, and retired Gen. Wesley Clark.

Although "celebrity candidates" may be creating the buzz in Iowa now, public opinion tends to shift in the year before the caucus and voters will be looking for a Democrat who can win, Vilsack spokesman Josh Earnest said.

The second part of the underdog strategy is to create a buzz with big new ideas that capture the voters' attention. Edwards entered the race on Thursday with that idea in mind.

The hope is that even if the national media is consumed with the excitement of Clinton and Obama, a candidate with different ideas will catch on with grass roots and "net roots" activists online. The net roots helped propel Howard Dean to the front of the pack in 2003 and brought in tens of millions of dollars in small donations.

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