When the Senate Isn't Enough

By Mark Leibovich
Sunday, March 19, 2006

One of the enduring notions about U.S. senators is that they're congenitally infected with the urge to run for president. And "it can only be cured by embalming fluid," the late Arizona congressman Morris Udall once said -- a line often quoted by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose own White House aspirations are far from embalmed.

The virus persists despite the well-catalogued losing streak among senators who have run: None has reached the White House since John F. Kennedy in 1960, and before JFK it was Warren G. Harding in 1920. Yet the Senate is awash in strivers intent on running anyway -- to a point where the 2008 campaign is coloring the chamber's daily dynamic at an unusually early stage.

A full 32 months before the presidential election, at least 10 senators are entertaining bids -- meaning they have traveled widely, taken interest in the well-beings of state lawmakers in Iowa or, in all likelihood, cast votes and given floor speeches with an eye to presidential voters.

The presumed roster includes a former first lady (Hillary Rodham Clinton), the most recent Democratic nominee (John Kerry), the Senate majority leader (Bill Frist), repeat candidates (McCain, Joe Biden), former governors (George Allen, Evan Bayh), darlings of the left and right (Russell Feingold, Sam Brownback) and a leading GOP critic of President Bush's Iraq policy (Chuck Hagel). It does not include Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum, who says he is focused on his reelection campaign this year but has not ruled out '08, win or lose in '06.

The concentration of prospective candidates creates "a whole host of environmental changes in the Senate that weren't there before," says former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, who came close to a run in 2004 and is considering one in '08. "There's a critical mass of people whose actions are going to be interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as motivated by their desire to run for president."

On any given day, senators are devoting a great deal of energy to "exploring" (their preferred term) campaigns for their party's nomination in '08. This can take a number of forms: Biden giving a national security speech in Texas, Bayh meeting with potential donors in Hollywood or McCain hosting a "town meeting" on immigration in Florida -- all of which occurred on the same day a few weeks ago. Just last weekend, several possible presidential candidates -- including four senators -- traveled to Memphis for the 2006 Southern Republican Leadership Conference to participate in a presidential straw poll. "You have a lot of people doing things where the purpose is to get attention versus to legislate," Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said last month in Hampstead, N.H., where he was watching Frist address 300 GOP activists at a Lincoln-Reagan Day dinner -- Frist's second trip to the state in three months. "This is going to happen anyway in the Senate," Gregg said, "but with this many people running, it's much more noticeable."

The 2008 election will be the first since 1952 that won't include an incumbent president or vice president (unless, by some long shot, Dick Cheney runs). And although previous campaigns have included multiple senators -- John Edwards, Bob Graham, Joe Lieberman and Kerry ran in '04 and Biden, Daschle and Christopher Dodd considered it -- analysts say it's unlikely that so many senators of both parties have ever been exploring candidacies at such an early point. "It seems unprecedented," says Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report.

"A lot of senators are more inclined to think, 'This thing could line up for me,' " Brownback says.

This is doubly true given wartime realities, which could favor the foreign policy credentials of senators as opposed to, say, the domestic orientations of governors. Several current and just-departed governors might run in '08 as well, although their ranks are not as numerous. Nor do governors share the same workspace, as senators do, which makes for instructive anthropology.

"When you get into presidential politics in the U.S. Senate, all forms of etiquette go out the window," says Republican strategist Scott Reed, who ran former senator Bob Dole's presidential campaign in 1996. Presidential aspirations, Reed says, tend to amplify tensions and behaviors that afflict the Senate to begin with: competition for credit, speaking time and attention.

After the so-called Gang of 14, led by McCain forged a last-minute compromise last spring to avert the "nuclear" option ending filibusters of judicial nominations, many analysts viewed the resolution in terms of McCain outmaneuvering Majority Leader Frist. Other GOP hopefuls in the Senate were happy to second-guess Frist. "We should have gone for it earlier," Allen (R-Va.) said of the nuclear option. He was in New Hampshire at the time.

Of course, it's also common for senators to use their colleagues' interest in the White House as a weapon to impugn their motives. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was asked not long ago about something Brownback had said about Bush's judicial nominations.

"Eh, I'm not running for president," Reid said, "so I have a very different constituency than Brownback does."

People who have served in the Senate say members are often uneasy with outward expressions of ambition -- particularly the ambitions of their colleagues. It's human nature for a senator to ask, "Who does that guy think he is?" says former senator Gary Hart, who ran for president in 1984 and 1988. He says he detected resentment and jealousy from other senators, especially during the heady days of his 1984 campaign after he stunned frontrunner Walter Mondale in the New Hampshire primary.

"They were angry at themselves for not running while I did," Hart says.

Candidates also use their Senate platform to play against perceptions of themselves. Clinton (D-N.Y.) has been accused of this repeatedly. She has co-sponsored legislation with conservative colleagues such as Brownback and Santorum and, recently, a bill that would outlaw flag burning. And many suspected that Bayh (D-Ind.) was trying to defy his moderate image -- or at least win points among liberals -- when he voted against the nomination of a popular Supreme Court nominee from his home state (John Roberts) and against the nomination of Condoleezza Rice for secretary of state.

Or, who knows, maybe these senators were acting on principle.

Either way: "No matter what, people in the Senate will reflexively say, 'Oh, he's voting that way because he's running for president,' " says former senator Bob Kerrey, who ran in 1992.

"That's unless they happen to be voting with you," he adds, "in which case they are a profile in courage."

Mark Leibovich is a reporter for The Post's Style section.

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