- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Former first lady Barbara Bush offered a tart-tongued analysis this week of the Democratic candidates who want her son’s job.

“So far, they are a pretty sorry group, if you want my opinion,” Mrs. Bush said in an interview with NBC’s “Today” show. The way I see it, never have 13 words said so much about so few who offer so little.

But that about sums up the candidates who are vying for their party’s nomination to go up against George W. Bush next year.

Let’s take former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean for starters, the feisty antiwar candidate who is tied with Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt in Iowa and has moved into a nearly prohibitive lead in New Hampshire.

It would be strange if a 1960s-style antiwar candidate won the Democratic presidential nomination at a time when a global army of terrorists has declared war on America. That prospect has a lot of pro-defense Democrats deeply worried that Mr. Dean will drag their party down to defeat next fall, as far-left Democrats have in the past.

The Washington Post’s political reporter Tom Edsall says he has talked to Democrats who fear “Dean’s nomination could lead to a repetition of the crushing general election defeats the Democratic Party suffered under George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.”

I’ve also talked to concerned Democrats. Though few, outside of Mr. Dean’s rivals, want to go on record and publicly criticize Mr. Dean, there is growing uneasiness among party officials that — as Yogi Berra once said — it could be “deja vu all over again” for the Democrats next year.

Late-bloomer Wesley Clark is still trying to convince doubtful Democrats he is one of them and really does have deep-rooted convictions — a hard sell, considering the retired four-star general was already in trouble for praising Mr. Bush’s presidency in a speech he gave at a Republican fund-raising dinner in Little Rock, Ark., in May 2001.

Now a videotape of a Jan. 22, 2002, speech has popped up in which Mr. Clark further praises Mr. Bush. In it, Mr. Clark told a large crowd at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., that “I tremendously admire, and I think we all should, the great work done by our commander in chief, our president, George Bush.”

Can you imagine the impact these televised video clips would have on Mr. Clark’s candidacy if he were nominated?

Then there’s Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, free-falling in the polls because he isn’t impressing his party’s rank-and-file. Earlier this year he was the front-runner in New Hampshire, but now he’s in danger of a humiliating loss in his neighboring state.

The reason: his failure to frame a clear, compelling message; internal bickering and desertions among his top staff; and a stuffy personality and stilted speaking style that, unlike Mr. Dean’s rock ‘em, sock ‘em oratory, seems to put Democrats to sleep.

Earlier this month, a CBS News poll asked Democratic primary voters, “Whom do you want to win the Democratic nomination?” Mr. Kerry came in fifth with 8 percent.

Mr. Gephardt isn’t doing well, either. The AFL-CIO abandoned its plans to endorse him, questioning whether this long-time Washington insider would have any chance of beating Mr. Bush.

Mr. Gephardt’s entire agenda revolves around repealing Mr. Bush’s tax cuts, even the popular child credits and the new lower tax rates for low- and middle-income workers. That would raise taxes on his party’s base and ensure Mr. Bush’s victory.

More recently, Mr. Clark and Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut have decided to pull out of Iowa, believing they can win the nomination in the later primaries. But they’ll trail in the Feb. 3 primaries, too. Mr. Clark is an unknown and Mr. Lieberman is too conservative for his party’s liberal activist base, which dominates the front-loaded primaries.

Meanwhile, Democrats seem to be their own worst critics, with their public complaints getting louder and angrier. “You can’t beat somebody with nobody, and at this point the Democrats have nobody,” said Democratic consultant Jim Duffy.

Or how about this stinging rebuke from Georgia Democratic Chairman Calvin Smyre, who took his party to task for ignoring the South? “I’m not comfortable with our strategy as it relates to the South,” Mr. Smyre told his party at a Democratic National Committee meeting in Washington. “The South was neglected” in 2000. “We were just written off to a large degree. You can’t win the White House unless we win some Southern states.”

Perhaps the Democrats’ ultimate insult came last week out in California when Attorney General Bill Lockyer, a likely Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2006, confessed that he voted for Arnold Schwarzenegger in this month’s recall, along with 23 percent of all registered Democrats. Mr. Lockyer said he was drawn to the GOP’s message of “hope, change, reform [and] optimism.”

Not a pretty picture for the Democrats. They’ve got a much steeper climb next year than they realize.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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