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Democrats are an underdog's best friends

Early long shots often end up becoming presidential nominees. Not so for Republicans.

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 1, 2003

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has been aggressively running for president for nearly two years and these days is often greeted like a rock star at campaign rallies.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry has been preparing for his run at least as long, has raised the most money among Democrats and has wide support among the party establishment.

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman has been a White House contender essentially since the U.S. Supreme Court finally retired the Gore-Lieberman ticket in 2000. He leads in most national polls of Democrats.

But consider two words for context: Bill Clinton.

National polls showed the then-obscure Arkansas governor badly trailing the likes of New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, former California Gov. Jerry Brown and Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen at this point in 1991. Clinton didn't even formally announce his candidacy until October, when more than 80 percent of New Hampshire Democrats had yet to hear of him.

Let Clinton serve as a reminder how dramatically things can change as the race for the Democratic presidential election kicks up another couple of notches after Labor Day. Democrats, much more than Republicans, have an uncanny knack for turning early underdogs into presidential nominees.

"Any candidate at this point would rather be in Howard Dean's position or maybe Joe Lieberman's, but so much can change," said Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll. "History tells us that whoever is leading in the polls now has little relationship to the probability that they'll get the nomination.... Any of the candidates on the list right now conceivably could win their party nomination."

Consider George McGovern.

In the fall of 1971, polls showed him stuck in the single digits. Maine Sen. Ed Muskie, Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey and Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy looked like better shots for the Democratic nomination.

Jimmy Carter?

At this point in 1975, the former Georgia governor literally did not register in national polls. Not even 1 percent support. Kennedy, Humphrey and Alabama Gov. George Wallace led the Democratic field, though by November Carter had jumped to nearly 3 percent support nationally.

Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis was in a little better shape in the fall of 1987, but polls generally showed him still stuck in the teens for Democratic support nationally and trailing the Rev. Jackson.

In the last half-century, only twice have nonincumbent fall front-runners in the year before the election wound up winning the Democratic nomination: Walter Mondale in 1984 and Al Gore in 2000.

Since 1952, the Republicans have consistently nominated the candidate leading in fall polls. Ronald Reagan in 1979 had stiff competition from former president and potential candidate Gerald Ford, George Bush and Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker, among others, but he consistently led the fall polls. Arizona Sen. John McCain made George W. Bush's path to the nomination uncertain at times in 2000, but the early front-runner fended off the challenge.

Some analysts theorize that Republicans are more deferential to their party leaders than fractious Democrats.

"Republicans support the person they think can win. Democrats always say they want to do that, but they often go in a different direction," quipped Matt Towery, an Atlanta pollster with InsiderAdvantage.

Nearly five months before Iowans cast the first votes in the race for the Democratic nomination, there is no clear Democratic front-runner. That could make the race even more susceptible to change as voters start paying closer attention.

"When you don't have a front-runner, people are going to look around," said Republican Virginia-based pollster David Winston. "I think there were some people who had a shot at becoming the front-runner but lost it. I think John Kerry had a shot, and I think (Missouri Rep.) Dick Gephardt did."

As Al Gore's running mate in 2000, Lieberman has the best name recognition nationally but is lagging in the crucial early states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

For now, Dean is the ostensible front-runner in the nine-person field that soon could see the addition of retired Gen. Wesley Clark.

The Vermont doctor's Internet-driven grass roots campaign has turned him into a cause celebre, hoisting him onto the covers of weekly magazines and pushing him steadily upward in polls. The latest polls in Iowa show him in a dead heat with Gephardt for first place, and a new Zogby International poll last week showed Dean surging into a 21-point lead over Kerry in New Hampshire. Pundits keep asking: Has he peaked too soon?

Underdogs like Florida Sen. Bob Graham (in New Hampshire, Zogby shows Graham at 1 percent support, behind Gen. Clark, who's not even in the race yet) might take solace in their party's historical soft spot for early long shots.

Then again, this is no typical year. The primary contest started much earlier than past races, when the field was often unformed a year before the election. This time, facing a dramatically compressed primary calendar, most of the candidates began laying the groundwork well before this year and started seriously campaigning early in the year.

And while history offers underdogs like Graham and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards plenty of hopeful examples, presidential primaries have been littered with credible candidates who never managed to pull themselves from the bottom of preseason polls.

Tallahassee lobbyist and veteran Democratic operative Jim Krog remembers the optimism he and so many others had in 1983 as former Florida Gov. Reubin Askew pushed onward in Iowa and New Hampshire in the face of bleak poll numbers.

Askew, a centrist who doubted the wisdom of a nuclear freeze, was met with overt hostility by many of Iowa's party activists, but he was buoyed by the consistently warm and enthusiastic receptions he found at individual homes in Iowa and New Hampshire. In the end, Askew could never find any momentum to overcome the drubbing he took in the Iowa caucus.

"When you get pounded in Iowa, and don't get the bounce that comes from being in the top four, it's a very difficult position," Krog said.

The primary race starting in January could be even tougher for early also-rans. The election schedule is compressed as never before, with contests coming so fast that candidates will have little time to regroup after each race. A week after Iowa's Jan. 19 caucus comes New Hampshire. Then a dozen more states hold caucuses and primaries over the following two weeks.

Towery, a former campaign strategist for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, notes that the earlier-than-usual primaries in states like Arizona, South Carolina and Oklahoma could dilute the influence of the party activist-dominated contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. Or not.

"It's those other states, that next lightning round, where we could have a complete reversal of fortune," Towery said. "But they come so fast, so rapidly (after Iowa and New Hampshire) that perhaps the leaders who are getting the most national attention have a greater impact in those states."

Then there's the question of President Bush's vulnerability more than a year before Election Day. Many Democrats have been heartened to see Bush's approval ratings steadily slipping this year, though they still remain above 50 percent.

Like the fall primary contest polls, however, these early approval ratings historically are virtually meaningless in predicting an incumbent president's re-election prospects.

At this point in 1991, President George Bush enjoyed approval ratings topping 70 percent but lost to Clinton in 1992. By November 1995, President Clinton's approval ratings were below 50 percent, but he went on to handily defeat Bob Dole.

- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727 893-8241 or adam@sptimes.com

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