Senate Hopefuls Are Convention No-Shows
Some Fear Being Tied to Democratic Ticket
By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 26, 2004; 9:35 AM
BOSTON, July 25 -- Boston is the place for Democrats this week, but some will be conspicuous by their absence Thursday night, when John F. Kerry accepts the presidential nomination. The top Democratic candidates from seven of the eight most competitive Senate races will be back home, as will dozens of House candidates.
Publicly, these candidates say they need to spend every possible minute campaigning at home. Privately, some acknowledge they do not want to hand their Republican opponents a ready-made campaign ad linking them to the Democratic Party's more liberal figures, such as Massachusetts Sens. Kerry and Edward M. Kennedy, who will loom large here.
The list of who's going and who's not is telling: Democratic candidates from states that look strong for Kerry generally plan to attend the convention, while most of those in tight races in states leaning toward President Bush are staying away.
In the eight Senate races seen as virtual tossups, the Democratic nominees or front-runners from North Carolina, Oklahoma and Alaska are skipping Boston altogether. Inez Tenenbaum, the Senate nominee in South Carolina, mingled with her state's delegation Sunday night but goes home Monday, when the four-day convention begins.
Rep. Chris John, the Democrats' top contender for a Senate seat in Louisiana -- and a "super delegate" by virtue of being a House member -- will be here Monday and Tuesday. Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle of South Dakota and Senate candidate Betty Castor of Florida will attend Monday through Wednesday, but not Thursday.
The only Democrat in a tossup Senate race who plans to be at the convention Thursday is Ken Salazar of Colorado, who will arrive Wednesday.
The story is similar among House candidates. Of the "Texas Five" -- five House Democrats seriously threatened by their state's redistricting -- only Rep. Charles W. Stenholm will appear in Boston. He is jetting in for a dinner Tuesday that will honor him and other prominent players in agriculture -- Stenholm is the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee -- and then he is going right back to his west Texas district.
"I'm not running on anybody's coattails but my own," Stenholm said recently when asked whether he was trying to avoid Kerry's big event. "My time is better spent campaigning" against Rep. Randy Neugebauer, his GOP opponent, Stenholm said. The four other targeted Texans -- Reps. Chet Edwards, Martin Frost, Nick Lampson and Max Sandlin -- are staying home.
Whether to attend the convention "is a hard decision for Democrats from conservative states," said Jim Jordan, Kerry's former campaign manager and a veteran of several Senate campaigns. Those who skip it may save themselves from an attack ad, he said, but they also miss a four-day fundraising extravaganza.
"It's hard for a cash-strapped candidate not to go and mingle with the party's donor base," Jordan said.
The convention's most prominent Senate candidate will be Tuesday night's featured speaker, Barack Obama, who is strongly favored to win in Illinois. He runs little risk of a backlash because his state is considered safe for Kerry.
But an aide to a Senate candidate in a state that Kerry is almost certain to lose -- and who spoke only on background because of the subject's sensitivity -- said his boss is staying away from Boston because the campaign wants to avoid the fate of Brian Schweitzer four years ago. Schweitzer, who was trying to oust Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), spoke at the 2000 Democratic convention in Los Angeles about the need to lower prescription drug costs, his pet campaign issue.
In an interview last week, Schweitzer said his convention appearance backfired. Burns "ran television ads with me speaking at the podium," he recalled. "They said, 'Brian Schweitzer, he's just like Al Gore.' " Gore won only 38 percent of Montana's presidential vote, and Schweitzer lost much more narrowly to Burns.
Asked whether he would do it all again, Schweitzer -- who is running for Montana governor this fall -- said, "I probably wouldn't." He added, "I'm not going to Boston."
The leaders of the Democrats' Senate and House campaign committees, Sen. Jon S. Corzine (N.J.) and Rep. Robert T. Matsui (Calif.), respectively, have given candidates the green light to stay away from Boston if they believe their time is better spent campaigning and raising money back home.
"We say they should do what's best for them," said Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "There are very few people in Boston voting for Inez Tenenbaum."
But Woodhouse's Republican counterpart, Dan Allen, notes with pleasure that Corzine recently urged convention planners to give more speaking time to Senate candidates. "A lot of the Senate Democratic candidates realize the top of their ticket, being as liberal as it is with Kerry and [John] Edwards, is going to burden them," Allen said.
Some Democrats, however, say the GOP will wrap the national ticket around them whether they attend the convention or not. "Certainly the Republicans try to spin it that way" when a Democrat attends a nominating convention, said Sandlin, one of the hard-pressed Texans staying home this week. "But it's no different from what they do each and every day. . . . It's the same old tired song."
"I would love to go to the convention, but they are largely ceremonial now," Sandlin said. "I have government work I need to do in Texas and some limited campaigning." In his race, he said, "the main issue is independence."
That's an easier theme for Sandlin to push from Marshall, Tex., than from Boston.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company