Drafting a presidential candidate is tougher than it sounds

Max Eden, a senior at Yale University, spent summer 2008 stumping for Barack Obama. He spent summer 2010 souring on the president over deficit spending and what he calls Obama’s “fancy rhetoric and empty promises.”

And then this thought came to him: Wouldn’t it be great if there could be a Republican candidate in 2012 who was a serious person, not a cartoon, and was serious about addressing our long-term structural deficit?

So began the Student Initiative to Draft Daniels.

Eden said he plans to gather 10,000 signatures and deliver them by the end of the month to Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who has said he’ll make up his mind after the state legislature adjourns April 29. But Eden admits his “gut is feeling nervous” about whether he and his Yale buddies will persuade Daniels to run.

Drafting presidential candidates is, by its nature, a quixotic endeavor. But Eden and others across the country are courting reluctant contenders, nonetheless. They are ignoring outright declarations by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christieand former Florida governor Jeb Bush, all of whom have said repeatedly that they have no intention of running.

Determined, the groups are putting together Facebook pages, YouTube videos, Twitter accounts and Web sites, holding out hope that their grass-roots efforts can create enough buzz and momentum to change minds.

The Draft Daniels movement may be furthest along, but at least a dozen groups have set up Web sites and are circulating petitions to draft various candidates into the 2012 race, from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and his father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.).

So far, Daniels seems to be the only one of the potential draftees actually considering a run.

“He told us that out of all the people who have asked him to run, that we have done the most to persuade him,” Eden said. “He sounded really genuine” but went on to add that he hoped the students would stay engaged even if he didn’t run. “And that wasn’t incredibly encouraging.”

The success rate of draft movements, Eden and his buddies know, is dismal.

Efforts to draft Gen. Wesley Clark succeeded in 2004, but he won only one Democratic primary out of the 14 he entered and eventually bowed out.

Attempts to draft Gen. Colin Powell in 1996 and 2000 fell flat, though a 46-member Facebook group is still dedicated to the cause.

It has been six decades since a draft movement succeeded: Dwight D. Eishenhower, another military man, was buoyed by an army of organizers and elected officials who propelled him to the White House in 1952.

“Ever since the ’70s, it’s been really hard to draft people or for people to get the nomination who weren’t political entrepreneurs and willing to create their own organizations,” said Sidney Milkis, a politics professor at the University of Virginia. Calling it a “very supply side-oriented” process, he said viable candidates have to have the stature and skills to be able to put together their own campaigns.

Those behind the movement to draft Clark raised $100,000, aired 100 TV ads and compiled a database of 50,000 names. The same group, two years later, hopped on the Obama bandwagon. It aired a “Draft Obama” commercial on Christmas Day in Hawaii, where the Obama family was vacationing.

“Michelle actually saw the commercial and came running in and said to her husband, ‘Are you running ads?’ ” recalled John Hlinko, a member of the group, saying Obama recounted the story to him later. “If we reached Mrs. Obama, we reached our target audience.”

Organizers of the current grass-roots movements have gotten some support from prominent conservatives also finding fault with the GOP’s 2012 field, which has been slow out of the gate.

Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, mapped out in a recent editorial eight reasons why Jeb Bush should run. Conservative pundit Ann Coulter said recently that Christie offers the GOP its only shot at capturing the White House.

“If we don’t run Chris Christie, Mitt Romney will be the nominee, and we will lose,” she said at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February.

And surveying the field in Iowa last month, DeMint said, “If no one is an immediate frontrunner, I think you might see a whole new cast of Republican candidates within the next couple months.”

DeMint, who backed Romney in 2008, went on to say that “there are a number of names bubbling around, particularly governors . . . Rick Scott in Florida, Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Chris Christie in New Jersey. Just tell it like it is and taking on the special interests, particularly government unions. It inspires people.”Donald Sico, who heads the one-man DraftChristie2012, agrees. His Web site of the same name doesn’t have a donate button and doesn’t sell T-shirts or bumper stickers, and Sico has rejected an offer to join forces with other Draft Christie movements. The sole purpose of his site, which he says is particularly popular in Texas, is to collect names of Christie backers, which he says he will deliver to the governor in September.

“My effort is going to be unsuccessful. I won’t raise any money,” said Sico, who works in government relations. “I just want to prove that there is support out there.”

Eden and his friends have raised about $10,000, mostly from relatives, which they have spent on ads in New Hampshire, Indiana and Iowa. Their PAC is now on 55 college campuses, and their goal of getting attention for Daniels, and getting his attention, has already been met — they got to spend about 45 minutes with him when he was in Washington for the CPAC gathering.

“The 10,000 student signatures, that could be the next bit of difference,” Eden said.

Nia-Malika Henderson is a political reporter for The Fix.
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