- The Washington Times - Monday, April 4, 2011

With President Obama officially running for re-election, the call from the left for a primary challenge was gaining steam - though no challenger so far is stepping forward.

Mr. Obama’s decision Monday to forgo civilian trials for the mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is only the latest in what liberal activists say is a long list of concerns they would like to see raised in a full campaign setting, which will only happen if someone challenges the president for the Democratic nomination.

But Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio Democrat and a two-time candidate whose name has been floated by activists, ruled out a bid Monday, flatly answering “No” when asked by The Washington Times if he would challenge the president.

He said that doesn’t mean he doesn’t oppose some of the president’s recent actions, including his decision to attack Libya without first seeking congressional approval. And he said he hopes other members of Congress follow his lead.

“I don’t have to be a candidate for president to challenge Mr. Obama,” he said.

At stake in the search for a challenger is the credibility of the anti-war movement and its ability to hold the Democratic Party’s feet to the fire.

“Many of us are meeting and tossing around names all the time, but every time we talk to those people they’re not up for the task,” said Medea Benjamin, co-founder of anti-war group Code Pink. “So at this point it’s still looking around for people who have a following, who have an articulate voice, and who can get out a message.”

In addition to Mr. Kucinich, another name that activists mention is former independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader. He didn’t return a call seeking comment Monday, though he has gone on record saying someone must mount a challenge to Mr. Obama.

And earlier this month Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, told WNYC radio that, while he won’t run as a Democrat, someone else could “enliven the debate” by making a primary bid.

Meanwhile, one talk-show host, blogging at the Los Angeles Times this week, said the time is ripe for Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mr. Obama’s 2008 Democratic rival opponent and now his secretary of state, to run.

Progressive Democrats’ list of worries over Mr. Obama has grown just in the last month with his decision to attack Libya and his about-face Monday, when his Justice Department said it will try the Sept. 11 masterminds in a military tribunal, not the civilian courts the president had vowed during his last campaign. Activists say they were already unhappy over Mr. Obama’s troop surge expanding the war in Afghanistan.

Asked what his supporters would think about the broken campaign promise, White House press secretary Jay Carney explained that Mr. Obama was bowing to political realities in Congress, where closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has proved deeply unpopular.

“I think that the president’s primary concern here is that the perpetrators — the accused perpetrators of that terrible attack on the American people —be brought to justice as swiftly as possible and as fairly as possible,” he said.

Patrick J. Buchanan, the conservative commentator and former White House aide who mounted the last serious challenge to a sitting president with his run against President George H.W. Bush in 1992, said liberal groups have an obligation to recruit someone.

“If you believe in a cause or a movement, and that cause or movement’s being betrayed, I think some leader’s got something of an obligation to represent that cause,” he said. “If the anti-war movement in the Democratic Party doesn’t mount an opposition candidate in the primary, I think it will have lost all credibility.”

Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, said Mr. Obama “is in no danger of losing a primary.

“Only 9 percent of Democratic voters in the country think he’s too conservative. Democrats unhappy with Obama on the left constitute a very small minority of the party’s voters,” Mr. Jensen said.

He said there are actually slightly more Democrats - 12 percent - who believe Mr. Obama is too liberal.

While Mr. Obama is the only major Democrat running, at least a dozen others have filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission, according to thegreenpapers.com, which tracks election information. The most noteworthy of them is Randall A. Terry, founder of pro-life group Operation Rescue.

Mr. Buchanan said former Sen. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin would have been a viable challenger from the left to Mr. Obama if he had not lost his own re-election bid in November.

Mr. Buchanan’s high point in the 1992 campaign was New Hampshire, where he ran 15 percentage points behind Mr. Bush.

But the other model for a primary challenger could be 1968, when President Lyndon B. Johnson withdrew from the presidential race after winning less than 50 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary against anti-war candidate Sen. Eugene McCarthy. Mr. McCarthy’s challenge showed Johnson was vulnerable and helped usher Sen. Robert F. Kennedy into the race.

That scenario could be the opening Mrs. Clinton could use to jump in the race, Mr. Buchanan said, but he stressed that “she can’t move until [Mr. Obama] decides he’s not in.”