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Senate Time Tolls Against Candidates

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 24, 2008; Page A17

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) returned to the Senate yesterday to find one thing that was dearly missing from his presidential campaign last year: A media throng hanging on his every word.

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More than three dozen reporters and seven TV film crews crowded into a Senate press gallery to hear the returning Banking Committee chairman talk about the subprime mortgage crisis. "I've been around here long enough to know you don't get everything you seek," Dodd said, speaking about his 2008 committee agenda but, perhaps, also recalling his campaign.

Dodd and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) "came home" this week after failed presidential bids, becoming members of an increasingly large Senate group.

Of the 100 sitting senators, 16 have run for president. Since John F. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960, becoming only the second person elected from the Senate to the White House, 47 senators have unsuccessfully sought residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The explanations for the long-running failure of senators' presidential ambitions are as varied as the personalities of the men and women in the world's greatest deliberative body. Donald A. Ritchie, associate Senate historian, said voters appear to prefer governors as can-do chief executives. Four of the last five presidents have been governors or former governors.

Biden blamed media bias toward the history-making nature of the current Democratic nomination fight.

"That's history, man, that's a big deal. There's an African American and a woman. . . . Nothing like this has ever, ever, ever happened," Biden said, admitting he realized in late August that he had no chance.

This year presents one of the best opportunities for a candidate to break the curse of the Senate, with Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) the front-runners for the Democratic nomination and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) ahead of the GOP field.

Ritchie suggested that some senators who won their party's nominations -- Kennedy and Barry M. Goldwater (R-Ariz.), for instance -- were junior members on the rise, not bogged down in legislative complexities that confused voters. That would bode well for Clinton or Obama, but might create a problem for McCain, who has two decades of senatorial experience.

In fact, the outlook is most bleak for people like Dodd and Biden, committee chairmen and vaunted figures on Capitol Hill who have been showered with attention by lobbyists and corporate executives seeking legislative fixes. In the post-World War II era, no committee chairman has ever won his party's presidential nomination.

Five senators have won their party's nomination in that period -- Kennedy, Goldwater, George McGovern (D-S.D.), Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). Not one had chaired a committee by the time of his nomination.

Returning to the Senate after defeat can be humbling, particularly for those without power. "Suddenly you're in the minority, and you have no ability to call a hearing," Kerry recalled of his first days back in 2005.

But Dodd and Biden have gavels they plan to retain. "Whoever the next president of the United States is, they're going to have to spend a fair amount of time with me," Biden said.

Dodd eagerly laid out an "ambitious" committee agenda yesterday. With the home mortgage crisis and other housing issues before his committee, he delivered a 21-minute opening statement and fielded questions for 25 minutes. At one point he compared his campaign to the short-lived first flight at Kitty Hawk.

But, he said, "I'm a better public servant for having gone through it."

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