Sen. Dodd Aspires To Reach Top Tier

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.), a Democratic presidential candidate, hopes his support for cutting of Iraq war funding on March 31, 2008, will help propel him from the back of the pack to front-runner status. (By Doug Wells -- Associated Press)
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 20, 2007

Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut jokes about filing a lawsuit against the late Andy Warhol after getting so little airtime during a recent Democratic debate.

"He promised everyone 15 minutes," Dodd said, "and I didn't get mine."

A popular five-term senator at home, Dodd remains an asterisk in the 2008 presidential polls. Determined to change that, the 62-year-old made a splashy grab for the spotlight last week on the biggest issue of the campaign: Iraq. Once rather hawkish on the war, Dodd attached his name to a bill that would cut off funding for combat operations on March 31. Then he urged his fellow Democratic presidential candidates to follow suit.

To make sure they -- and the voters who will have the first say in the Democratic nominating contest -- got the message, Dodd aired television advertisements in Iowa and New Hampshire, calling the funding deadline the "only responsible measure in Congress that would take away the president's blank check and set a timetable to bring our troops home." Without naming names, he added, "Unfortunately, my colleagues running for president have not joined me."

When the Senate voted Wednesday on the deadline, its 29 supporters included Dodd and the three Democratic presidential contenders who serve with him: Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Barack Obama (Ill.), and Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.). The Dodd campaign responded with a satisfied news release.

"We're pleased that so many of Senator Dodd's colleagues, including Senators Clinton and Obama, have answered his call," spokeswoman Christy Setzer said.

For Dodd, the vote represented the kind of rare opening a candidate stuck on the bottom rung can't afford to pass up. "Certainly if you're in the second or third tier, it requires you to be opportunistic," said Democratic strategist Geoff Garin, who is not affiliated with a 2008 candidate. "The challenge, obviously, is to be noticed."

On the other hand, Garin added, "In Dodd's case, the fact that all the other candidates went along with it, sort of minimized the amount of daylight he was hoping to create for himself."

Dodd's goal was to establish himself at the left end of the war spectrum, where most Democratic primary voters reside. When Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, a hero of the antiwar left, proposed the deadline as part of a debate over war spending, Dodd jumped at the chance to become a co-sponsor, viewing it as a succinct way to show where he stood.

"People want clarity. It's important to them," Dodd said. When voters look at the Democratic candidates, he said, "there's an assumption that everyone's in a certain place on Iraq. They're not."

Wednesday's vote was purely for show, but it could resonate. All four Democratic senators seeking the nomination are on record supporting a withdrawal strategy that remains controversial, even within their own party. Two Democrats regarded as experts on military matters, Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl M. Levin (Mich.) and Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), voted against the Feingold-Dodd proposal, along with 17 other Democrats. "It sends the wrong message to the troops," Levin said.

Clinton, Obama and Biden all played down the vote by stressing its symbolic nature -- it was an amendment to an unrelated water bill, and procedural at that -- a response that helped underscore Dodd's newfound fervency. Obama noted that he still preferred his own proposal, a more flexible March 31, withdrawal goal. Clinton told reporters she was not sure she would back a funding deadline in the future -- and then hours later offered her unequivocal endorsement.

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