- The Washington Times - Friday, November 8, 2002

Democrats, stung by their midterm setbacks and angry with their party's national leaders, aren't excited about any of their potential 2004 challengers to President Bush.

"I don't think we have a formidable candidate for challenging Bush now," said California Democratic campaign strategist David Townsend. "He demonstrated he is a pretty tough guy."

Several common themes emerged from interviews with state party leaders and Democratic campaign strategists throughout the country:

•Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt and South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle, considered among the top 2004 presidential nomination contenders until Tuesday's stunning election results, are now being dismissed in some instances with anger and in others with regrets.

•Former Vice President Al Gore is no longer considered to have the nomination for the asking.

•The name of Mr. Gore's running mate, Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, rarely came up as a potential contender.

•Some Democrats believe that New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton would make a formidable challenger though she insists she won't run for the nomination in 2004.

•Few Democratic governors are being put forward as contenders for the 2004 nomination.

Some Democrats said it's too early to say who would make their best standard bearer, in part because Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Daschle, once potential top contestants, discredited themselves in the midterm election.

"Gephardt and Daschle haven't done their presidential ambitions much good," said Virginia Democratic Chairman Larry Framme. "How can you be a leader of a party when you can't join together to form a basic agenda to lead your respective legislative caucuses into a critical election?"

Arkansas Democratic Chairman Ron Oliver said the Gephardt-Daschle failure to oppose Mr. Bush over a war with Iraq "has done some damage to their leadership roles within the party. But they were victims of Bush's popularity, which was and is based on events surrounding September 11."

Nor are Democrats united in whether they would be better off with a presidential nominee from the South, where the Republican Party won big on Tuesday.

Said Mr. Framme: "Winning has less to do where our candidates came from than who they were and how they campaigned. I think Bill Clinton would have won had he been a Minnesota governor."

Before Tuesday, Mr. Gore, a Southerner of sorts, was talked about as the inevitable choice for a party out to get even for the Republicans' "illegitimate victory" of 2000.

"No, it's not true that if Al Gore wants it, he gets it," said Mr. Oliver. "He is the front-runner but a lot will be happening between now and 2004, and it's no slam-dunk for Gore."

Mr. Townsend said that the "problem with Gore [is] if he runs, he probably gets the nomination, but he is not very inspiring."

Democrats are divided over whether Mrs. Clinton's time has come for a nomination try. She is generally considered both a plus and a minus for Democrats' White House hopes her liberalism would provide needed energy for the party's base of voters but also spur Republicans.

"Hillary has excellent political skills and would energize political women as the first woman to head the ticket of a major party," Mr. Townsend said. "Besides, it would infuriate the GOP right and mobilize them. And she can raise money like nobody's business. I think she is a great candidate."

But in Virginia, Mr. Framme suggested it might "be better if she created a longer record of direct service. But, no question, if she chose to go for it this time, she would be a formidable candidate."

As for Mr. Lieberman, some Democrats don't like his stance of waiting to see if Mr. Gore announces before he decides to seek the nomination.

"The feeling most other party chairmen in the South that I talk to is, if you want something, you don't wait for someone else to say 'no' first," Mr. Oliver said.

Governors are "conspicuously absent" from Democrats' list of top presidential contenders. "[Georgia Gov.] Roy Barnes was certainly talked about but he got defeated on Tuesday, and that pretty much took care of that one," Mr. Oliver said.

"Probably we need to go with somebody new, like Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. I have to believe if the Democrats are going to do better, they need to carry the South. Last time, we didn't," he added.

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