Living Politics: Election Gave '04 Brokers More Clout

If you're not a political junkie--or don't live in their states or do business with them--chances are you haven't heard of the following people: Tom Vilsack, Ed Rendell, Rod Blagojevich, Jennifer Granholm, Al From, Ted Halstead, Simon Rosenberg, Donna Brazile or John Sweeney.

But if you're running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 (and who isn't?) you're sure to know them. They are among the crucial players who gained clout after last week's election, and who you'll need to woo--or neutralize--if you want to be the lucky (or unlucky) one to take on George W. Bush.

Al and Tipper Gore are on a book tour. Sen. John Kerry is declaring his candidacy on a Sunday talk show. Sen. John Edwards is telling business executives how he'd balance the federal budget. Minutes after the last election ended, the next one began: a Democratic preseason that will winnow a field of perhaps a dozen potential candidates down to one. I've been checking in from time to time on pre-race preparations for more than a year on MSNBC.com (it's never too early!), and now it's time to take another look at where things stand. Some points to note:

The Vilsack Factor

Democrat Tom Vilsack won re-election as governor of Iowa in the face of a heavy Republican onslaught, including a last-minute visit by President Bush. That makes him a hero to Democrats, and a power player in 2004. Iowa, of course, is where the presidential race begins, with its precinct caucuses to take place in January 2004. Rep. Dick Gephardt won there in 1988, and is counting on it to be a launching pad for his candidacy this time around. Al Gore bested Bill Bradley there in 2000, and would need to do win it again. Sen. Tom Daschle, from neighboring South Dakota, would expect to do well there if he runs. Others, such as Edwards and Howard Dean, have been working the state hard, hoping that a better-than-expected showing would set them up for a surge in New Hampshire, which votes the following week. Vilsack harbors presidential aspirations of his own. If he decides to run, even as an Iowa-only favorite son, he would take the state out of the game. In the more likely event that he doesn't run, he'll attempt to stay neutral--and become the crucial on-field referee in one of the most pivotal events of the year.

Governors

There was precious little good news for Democrats on election night. It came only in governors' races, in which the party won back statehouses in a swath of old-line industrial and farm states: Pennsylvania (Ed Rendell), Illinois (Rod Blagojevich), Michigan (Jennifer Granholm), Wisconsin (James Doyle) and Kansas (Kathleen Sebelius). These governors, like those elsewhere, will be busy trying to drain the red ink from state budgets, but they won't be too busy for presidential politics. Again, some of them--including Rendell and Blagojevich--have White House aspirations of their own, but it's probably too soon for them to act on them. Winning their support is a major goal for any of the people who really are running this time.

DLC and NDN

Two acronyms that junkies know and that Democratic candidates hear in their sleep. The Democratic Leadership Council, chaired these days by Sen. Evan Bayh and run for 17 years by its founding director, Al From, is the spawning ground of moderate "Third Way" thinking in the party. Bill Clinton was chairman when he launched his own presidential bid in 1991. The New Democratic Network is the DLC's overtly political cousin, run by an operative named Simon Rosenberg. It doles out cash to candidates and, increasingly, supports independent spending efforts. Most of the likely candidates spoke in New York at the DLC's big meeting the other month. Sen. Joe Lieberman is close to both organizations, but if he doesn't run--and he says he won't if Gore does--most of the other contenders (with the exception of Dean and Al Sharpton) will want to cozy up to them.

Black Democrats

One of the most important moments in Clinton's rise to the nomination in 1992 was the decision of former Gov. Doug Wilder--an African-American--not to get into the contest. That left Clinton free to lock up crucial black votes in the South. Since then, black voters have, if anything, become a more important part of the equation in Democratic contests. That's especially true in the South, where blacks can make up half or more of the turnout in a primary. They're up for grabs this time, and are sure to decide the outcome of the third important event in the 2004 season--the South Carolina primary, which follows Iowa and New Hampshire. Which Democrat can win them over? In the meantime, there is one person every Democrat would want on their side in that effort: Donna Brazile. The Louisianan worked for Gephardt in 1988 and for Al Gore in 2000. She is a master organizer, and highly regarded by everyone in the business.

New America Foundation

This think-tank is a hive of state-of-the-art policy entrepreneurship, full of 30- and 40-something alums of the Clinton years, eager to play at a higher level next time around. They know how things work in the real world, yet also how to think big about the future in "Third Way" fashion. The CEO, Ted Halstead, has been much sought after by likely candidates, Kerry and Edwards perhaps most assiduously.

Jeanne Shaheen--The governor of New Hampshire lost her Senate race, and lost a good bit of her popularity before that. But she is a master organizer, having started managing Gary Hart's historic upset victory over Walter Mondale in 1984--an event that signaled the arrival of the Baby Boom in adult American politics. She still knows how to organize, and her preference in New Hampshire in 2004 will be important whether she is in the Senate or not.

AFL-CIO

It's easy to caricature "Big Labor." Republicans and even some Democrats have been doing it for years. Clinton shrewdly positioned himself against them when he ran in 1992. But the unions will be more important in the 2004 primary race than they have been in a long time. The question is whether the AFL-CIO will be able to settle on a candidate. In 2000, they got behind Gore early, a fatal blow to Bradley's chances. This time they're unlikely to commit to Gore, if for no other reason than that one of their long time friends, Gephardt, will be in the race. Daschle, if he runs, has many friends in Labor as well. The AFL-CIO endorsement will be crucial--if Sweeney is able to engineer one by primary time.

Ted Kennedy

With Bill Clinton's humiliation in last week's election (Democrats lost virtually everywhere he campaigned), there is only one revered elder statesman figure left in the party, and it's Sen. Ted Kennedy. The Democrats have decided to hold their convention in Boston, in good measure because, as one party insider told me, "Teddy wants it so much." Kennedy's support would be a crucial benefit to Kerry, his Senate colleague from Massachusetts, but the relationship between the two is chilly. Teddy seems somewhat taken with Edwards, as a matter of fact. But however much he is a symbol of faded liberalism to the GOP, Teddy is a power in the party--and his word about whom to support (and whom not to) will be pivotal.

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