- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner has suddenly and unexpectedly withdrawn from the contest for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. In a corral of dark horses preparing to take on the conventional wisdom’s favorite, Sen. Hillary Clinton, Mr. Warner had perhaps the brightest prospects. He is a political centrist, personally successful from his own business and rich — a highly praised former governor, a Southerner with broad appeal and a man with a story to tell. He could raise money, and he was being well, if modestly, received as he stumped for candidates in the 2006 midterm elections.

His only stumbling to this point was a messy flirtation with the left-wing blogs which are now all the rage in the Democratic party, and a poor decision to support Ned Lamont in the current battle for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Sen. Joe Lieberman in Connecticut. I thought these two incidents indicated not only an excessive desire to be loved by the left base of his party, but also a certain lack of political self-confidence. (I don’t think a Gov. Bill Clinton in 1990 would have followed this strategy, but that was almost two decades ago, and we are in a new political age.)

Of course, it is always possible that Mr. Warner might change his mind later in 2007, especially if it becomes obvious that Mrs. Clinton cannot be elected, and that none of the dark horses chasing her have what it takes. But I suspect that Mr. Warner, with his prospects so bright, had deeper reasons for withdrawing, and will not be coaxed back later in this cycle.

The results of the 2006 elections must come in before we speculate very much further about the field which remains. A smashing Democratic victory in which both houses of Congress return to their control would be a boost to the Howard Dean wing of the party, and shrink the chances of moderate liberals such as Sens. Joe Biden and Evan Bayh and Gov. Bill Richardson. Sen. Russell Feingold would rise. But his ultimate prospects for nomination seem dim under any circumstances. Has-beens Al Gore and Sen. John Kerry are unlikely winners in 2008, but populist John Edwards, after a big 2006 Democratic victory, might make a comeback. Mrs. Clinton would remain the frontrunner, although a serious clash ahead with the Dean wing would probably be inevitable.

If the Democrats win the House, but not the Senate, it would be a partial victory for the party’s left base, but they would have less energy for them heading into 2008. One or more new Democratic presidential candidates might enter the field then in 2007. If the Democrats fail to win back at least one house of Congress in 2006, it would be a very serious blow to the Dean wing of the party. The chairman almost certainly would have to resign, and the moderate liberal wing of the party would be reinvigorated. Mrs. Clinton would probably become a stronger frontrunner. Yet her negatives and the polarized opinions in the country about her would remain problematic for her candidacy.

Three weeks out, it is apparent that the Republican strategic recovery, clearly forming two weeks ago, was at least temporarily stymied by the Foley scandal. Some Republicans assert that the greatest damage was only in a few close races, and that they are already returning to competitive edges in most of the close Senate races and many of the House races. This remains to be seen, but it seems reasonable that GOP financial resources, its get-out-the-vote effort, and its “trench” protection in close races, could make the outcome in November closer than the breathless predictions of an incoming political tsunami now heralded by many Beltway pundits. (If I sold drapes in Washington, I would require cash up front on any new orders being made now.)

Virtually all public polls this year are suspect, some more than others, and only so-called internal polls — much more carefully conducted — are worth taking seriously. Even they have considerable volatility, and only when the relatively large number of undecideds make up their minds will we have a better idea where this election is going. In my opinion, almost all Democrats have decided for their candidates. I think the bulk of the undecideds are those who usually vote for Republicans and independents. The key for Republicans is whether they can bring their voters back on election day.

Last week, the public and internal poll numbers were horrendous for the Republicans, but there is not yet firm evidence that these trends will hold and continue. If they do, of course, it will be a political wipeout, and all bets for 2008, and for the next two years in the capital, will be off. If they do not, there will be an earthquake in at least one major political party.

Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.

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