By Joe Trippi
Sunday, November 12, 2006

Wham! The 2006 midterm elections are over, and the modern conservative era has come to an end.

For the Democrats, a party so long on the outs, it feels good to be back in power. But we can't just revel in yesterday. Democrats have to start looking now to maximize our mandate for the 2008 presidential election.

Because what the voters have done is to kick open the door to a new era in American politics, and their hunger for a new direction didn't end last Tuesday. That's the problem for Arizona Sen. John McCain and what's left of the field vying for the GOP nomination. The Republican nominee will have a hard time trying to chart a new course for the nation while defending an unpopular lame-duck president and trying to breathe life into a conservative ideology that has run out of gas.

No, the real opportunity belongs to Democrats. The voters want change, and they will make it happen. I'm going to make one bold prediction about 2008: Thanks to changes in communications and technology, one of the candidates on my list will raise $500 million, almost all of it from ordinary citizens contributing less than $100 each. Don't believe it? Wait and see. It'll happen, and we'll witness the birth of a new progressive era that could last a generation or more.

So the party's presidential hopefuls won't be fighting just for the nomination, but for the historic chance to help launch that era. As they stand on the threshold of the presidential cycle, here's my assessment of the individual prospects of the many would-be presidents from a resurgent Democratic Party.

Front-runner: Hillary Rodham Clinton

She has it all -- the ability to raise the money; a political team that's among the best, if not the best, in the party; a strong base of support; and an uncanny ability to avoid political mistakes. And I don't care what anyone says -- her husband is one of two rock stars in the Democratic Party and a huge asset.

Ironically, the problem with Clinton's candidacy arises from her strength. Front-runners have something to lose, so they almost always run cautious, safe campaigns. This almost cost John Kerry the nomination in 2004, and could cost the senator from New York the nomination in 2008. Her strength also creates the certainty that a campaign of bold new ideas will emerge to oppose her. She is so strong within the party that, with so many contemplating a run against her, the only viable option for a serious challenger is to put forth innovative ideas in hopes of breaking out of the pack. And there are plenty in the Democratic Party who are capable of doing that.

The "Other" Rock Star: Barack Obama

He's the one candidate who can wrestle Bill Clinton for support in the black community and win. All the others are both thrilled about and terrified of this guy. They're thrilled that he might take black votes from Hillary. They're terrified because he might take a lot more votes from them and become a co-front-runner the day he enters the race, if he does. Obama's obvious downside is inexperience. Three years ago, he was an Illinois state senator; in 2008, he will not have completed his first U.S. Senate term. So he had better have some ideas -- or wait till next time.

The Oxygen Taker: Al Gore

Talk about setting a progressive agenda with bold new ideas. The man is doing it and he doesn't even have a job. In a party that tends to treat its past nominees like lepers, Gore has done an amazing job of reemerging as an important thought leader on issues such as the Iraq war and global warming. If he throws his hat into the ring, he will immediately suck all the oxygen out of the room for most of the other candidates. The media won't be able to stop doing the Hillary vs. Al 800-pound-gorillas-go-at-it stories. Everyone but Obama will be reduced to begging for attention. But entering the race means he suddenly would have something to lose. Could candidate Gore stop himself from playing it safe?

The Champion of 2006: John Edwards

Hands down the guy who improved his position the most this year. Edwards leads the field in early polls in Iowa, which is more important than ever, because the 2008 nominating process is more front-loaded than in prior years. The former North Carolina senator has a bevy of ideas, and is the only Southerner, important to a party that has elected only two presidents in the past 30 years -- both from the South. All of which earns him a down arrow -- because once you take the lead in Iowa, the entire field tries to destroy you. Good luck.

Down but Not Out: John Kerry

The former presidential nominee was doing quite well until the "botched joke." Democratic losses in the House or Senate would have made a comeback impossible, so no one was happier than Kerry last Tuesday. The senator from Massachusetts is going to need to present some bold ideas to regain relevance in this field; I'd start with Iraq. And for those who want to count this guy out: He has come back from the dead before. Trust me, I speak from experience. Handicaps? It's all up from here or he's out.

Chairman of Foreign Relations: Joe Biden

The senator from Delaware is doing what Kerry should do: taking the lead on the Iraq war and staking out ideas for bringing our troops home safely. But the down arrow stays until someone gets this guy to shut up and listen.

Running to the Right: Evan Bayh

A senator who has actually run a government, the former governor of Indiana also hails from the region that may be most critical to a Democratic electoral victory -- the Midwest. In 2004, Democrats lost Missouri and Ohio, electoral votes that would have put Kerry over the top. Bayh could be the best bet for picking up three or four Midwestern states. He seems to be running to Clinton's right, which will prove to be either pure genius (he has a lane all to himself) or a disaster -- ask President Joe Lieberman.

The One to Watch: Russ Feingold

Perhaps the most authentic candidate, the senator from Wisconsin has a deep connection to the grass roots and is a favorite of the party's progressive wing. If President Bush stays stubborn on Iraq and the rest of the field plays it safe, Feingold could get very hot.

A Résumé to Die For: Bill Richardson

He'd be the first Hispanic to make a presidential run, and his résumé covers nearly every issue, foreign or domestic. Need bold ideas on immigration? New Mexico Gov. Richardson has grappled with that. Ideas on energy? Ask former energy secretary Richardson. How to deal with a nuclear North Korea? Former U.N. ambassador Richardson knows the turf. But can he raise the money, and earn enough early support to get his ideas into the mix?

The General: Wesley Clark

He still has a strong following among progressives and the netroots and could get traction if there's no consensus on a new Iraq strategy soon.

More Than a Cameo: Tom Vilsack

I thought the Iowa governor's candidacy was a cameo until I saw him speak at Renaissance Weekend last year. He clearly gets that this will be an election about ideas. Vilsack will have a tough fight -- but I'm the last guy to bet against a governor from a small rural state.

So there they are, the leading contenders (and there'll surely be more). To get the chance to lead the nation in meeting the challenges of the next decade -- globalization, energy, health care, terrorism -- the winner will need to break out of the ideological box and stop defending the ideas of the past. Gore or Bayh could run a campaign like that and possibly pass a cautious Clinton to win. But if Clinton or Obama runs such a campaign, the 2008 election could be even more historic than the wave of change we witnessed last Tuesday.

Joe Trippi managed the 2004 presidential campaign of Howard Dean and is the author

of "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" (Regan Books).

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