The Narrowing Field

Saturday, December 23, 2006

IN THEORY, this should be the most wide-open presidential contest in decades. In reality, more than a year before the first vote, the field seems to be narrowing awfully fast. On the Democratic side, former Virginia governor Mark Warner, Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, former South Dakota senator Tom Daschle and, this week, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh have announced they won't be running. On the Republican side, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee is leaving not just the Senate but the presidential race, and Virginia Sen. George Allen, once a leading contender, seems unlikely to toss his hat into the ring.

To be honest, we'll miss some of these candidates more than others. It's not unheard of to have such early dropouts: Former vice president Al Gore emerged from the "Saturday Night Live" hot tub at this time four years ago to announce he wouldn't be a candidate in 2004. And the field of announced candidates will certainly grow. North Carolina's John Edwards, the former Democratic vice presidential nominee, is set to make his announcement next week, joining Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack in the Democratic field.

But it would be unfortunate if the departures portended a presidential race winnowed to a few almost before it begins. The country would benefit from a multitude of voices in both parties -- not just Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) on the Democratic side and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani on the Republican.

"Whether there were too many Goliaths or whether I'm just not the right David, the fact remains that at the end of the day, I concluded that, due to circumstances beyond our control, the odds were longer than I felt I could responsibly pursue,'' said Mr. Bayh, who just a few weeks earlier had formed an exploratory committee.

Call us quaint, but we liked it back when voters actually got to review candidates' qualifications and positions. Now, it seems, the first question potential supporters (read: donors) ask about candidates is not what they believe but whether they are electable. That sets up a vicious political cycle: A candidate seen as unelectable can't raise the daunting amounts ($25 million to $30 million by January 2008) needed to fuel a credible presidential race. But no candidate without a serious bank balance can be considered electable.

That problem has been exacerbated by the withering away of the federal matching fund system, which was designed to boost lesser-known primary candidates but has now become functionally irrelevant, because the top-tier candidates can raise more on their own than they would be permitted to if they accepted matching funds. An increasingly front-loaded primary system -- on the Democratic side, candidates will need enough to get through four contests in 15 days -- intensifies the need for an early pile of cash.

Perhaps our worries are premature; after all, at this point four years ago, hardly anyone had heard of former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who emerged as a leading contender for the Democratic nomination. Nonetheless, we're anxious to see some Davids tromping through the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire, not just a few big-footed Goliaths. And we'd like the voters to have some say in deciding which is which.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company