Democrats Work to Fill Ideological, Electoral Void

By Chris Cillizza
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 13, 2006

Former Virginia governor Mark R. Warner's decision to bow out of the 2008 Democratic presidential race yesterday left the remaining candidates scrambling to fill the ideological and electoral void left by the candidate long considered a leading alternative to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential bid.

The most obvious Democrat to benefit from Warner's surprise announcement, in the view of many party strategists, is Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.). He cleared his schedule yesterday to make phone calls to donors and party activists who had tentatively signed on with Warner for 2008 and are now free agents.

Warner's anticipated campaign was to be built around the notion that in an age of polarized politics, many voters are eager for a leader focused on reaching across partisan barriers for solutions to big problems. The former technology executive talked often about his experience in Virginia; he had won a state where Republicans had easily won the governorship in the previous two elections and went on to persuade the GOP-controlled legislature to pass a tax increase he called necessary to the financial solvency of the commonwealth.

That résumé -- coupled with his personal wealth -- had elevated him as a preferred choice among many Democrats who believe that Clinton (N.Y.) will not be electable in 2008.

"This is disheartening information to Hillary-alternative Democrats," said Thomas F. Schaller, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County.

Some party strategists suggested that the greatest opportunity for a Democrat seeking to be the anti-Clinton alternative will -- unlike Warner's canceled candidacy -- emerge on the ideological left.

"I just don't think there is any oxygen in this race for the space that Warner was looking to occupy -- that being the moderate, establishment, electable, successful, business-entrepreneur-turned-one-term governor," said Chris Lehane, an experienced Democratic operative.

Clinton has carefully hewed to the ideological center in her six-year Senate career, building a record of working across party barriers. Her positioning is not without risk, however, as exemplified by the resentment toward her among many activists in the party's liberal wing because of her 2002 vote supporting the Iraq war and her unwillingness to set a date for withdrawal of troops.

"The bulk of the people running are going to run to the left of her, not the center," said Douglas Sosnik, a former Clinton White House aide and a personal adviser to Warner.

If Warner's decision shifts the 2008 center of gravity leftward, the candidate best positioned to capitalize on the change may be former senator John Edwards (N.C.), the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2004. Since leaving the Senate at the end of that year, Edwards has apologized for his 2002 vote authorizing President Bush to use force in Iraq and he has called for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces. He has also courted organized labor, which remains a key Democratic constituency in nomination contests.

Other names touted as potential liberal alternatives include Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), who recently made his first visit to Iowa, and former vice president Al Gore.

Many within Warner's own inner circle, however, believe that his message of centrist politics leaves a void for someone with a similar philosophy.

"People responded to his leadership style. This was a different way to think about leadership," said Monica Dixon, the head of Warner's Forward Together PAC and one of his leading campaign strategists.

On paper, Bayh most closely resembles Warner in both ideological profile and governing style. Both are former governors of Republican-leaning states who have spent much of their time in office working with members of the rival party to provide solutions.

In nearly every speech, Bayh emphasizes that he was twice elected governor of Indiana before being elected -- and reelected to the Senate. The not-so-subtle message of those speeches is that Bayh represents his party's best chance of being competitive in Republican-leaning states.

Seeking to quickly capitalize on Warner's decision, Bayh spent the day reaching out to jilted Warner backers -- making the argument that his campaign is a natural landing spot for them. In a statement released yesterday Bayh praised Warner as "an exceptional public servant, a great leader, and an influential voice in the Democratic Party."

Outgoing Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson are also positioning themselves as moderates in the 2008 field. They gain some residual benefit from a Warner-less field, said party strategists not aligned with either candidate.

"Primary voters are all handicappers," said Matt Bennett, co-founder of Third Way, a group of moderate Democrats. "They try to pick the guy who can win."

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