2008 race underlies party's gathering
At the Democratic state conference, potential presidential candidates get a chance to court supporters.
By ADAM C. SMITH
Published December 12, 2005
LAKE BUENA VISTA - For Democratic activists seething over George W. Bush, the bumper sticker selling at the Democratic state conference said it all: "Is It 2008 Yet?"
In Florida, it might as well be.
Delaware Sen. Joe Biden zipped through South Florida last week raising money for his prospective campaign. Govs. Tom Vilsack of Iowa and Mark Warner of Virginia courted Florida Democrats and donors at Walt Disney World on Saturday night. So did former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Next month, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh is expected to hit Tampa Bay to add to the roughly $10-million he's already reeled in for his prospective presidential campaign.
It's the blessing (or curse) of being Florida - home to 27 swing electoral votes and vast pools of campaign donors - that ambitious politicians from both parties never cease campaigning. Saturday and Sunday at the state Democratic conference amounted to one of the earliest cattle calls of the 2008 Democratic presidential campaign.
In Edwards, Vilsack and Warner, Florida Democrats saw three Red State Democrats with a lot to teach the party about how to reach beyond its base. They also heard remarkably similar themes emerging from these contenders:
"People fundamentally know that we're losing a sense of common purpose, we're losing a sense of community," Vilsack said, describing an anxiety among Americans.
Edwards called on people to make the fight against poverty a moral crusade. "There is a hunger in America, a hunger for a sense of national community again, a hunger for something big and important, uplifting, inspirational, that all of us can be involved in again," he said.
Warner said he's more upset about what President Bush hasn't done than what he has: "This president has missed incredible opportunities to call upon us - not as Republicans or Democrats or independents - but to call on us as Americans to be our best. Lord knows after 9/11, after the war started in Iraq, after those horrific images with Hurricane Katrina, I don't know any American that wouldn't have said, "I'm willing to step up, I want to be part of the solution, I'm willing to have some shared sacrifice, we as this country can come together and conquer this problem."'
Depending on who's counting or speculating, there are at least 10 potential Democratic candidates. By many estimates, the Democratic race may ultimately boil down to which candidate emerges as the strongest alternative to Hillary Clinton.
Here's an itemization of the prospective field. The senators: Evan Bayh of Indiana, Joe Biden of Delaware, Hillary Clinton of New York, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, and John Kerry of Massachusetts. The governors: Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Tom Vilsack of Iowa, and Mark Warner of Virginia. The others: former Gen. Wesley Clark, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, former Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, and even former Vice President Al Gore.
"The most interesting ideas right now? They all belong to Al Gore," said Mitchell Berger, a top Democratic fundraiser from Fort Lauderdale who is holding out hope Gore might join the race.
Chris Korge, a prominent South Florida fundraiser, has hosted Clinton recently for Senate campaign fundraisers and hopes she jumps into the presidential race.
"She's leading all of them combined. There's no question she can win Florida, and she can win the nation," Korge said.
But Bob Kunst, a Democratic Miami activist who has been traveling the country trying to drive a draft-Hillary movement, said Sunday he has never heard such hostility to the New York senator as he did in Orlando this weekend. People are disgusted about her movement to the right, such as supporting a flag burning ban.
Meanwhile, some of John Kerry's top Florida fundraisers are sticking with him. Miami lawyer Kirk Wagar dismissed the suggestion that Kerry had his shot and missed it.
"John Kerry got a higher percentage of the electorate than Bill Clinton ever did," Wagar said. "Ronald Reagan ran for president three times and now they're trying to put his face on Mount Rushmore."
Florida being Florida, party activists got to see some of the first campaign steps of Democrats testing their messages for 2008. Here's who they met:
Vilsack: A soft-spoken Midwesterner and chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, Vilsack has a record of shrinking state government and expanding access to health insurance. He's no firebrand as a speaker, but on Saturday he had some activists in tears as he described his youth. His mother had an alcohol and drug addiction, and attempted suicide.
"It was tough," he recounted. "Back in those days, it wasn't something you talked about. You spent a lot of time alone. You couldn't bring kids home to enjoy lunch because you never knew if your mother was going to be okay or not." His mother eventually beat her addiction.
Edwards: Kerry's former running mate has kept a high profile since leaving the Senate last year. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he leads a center studying ways to combat poverty. His emphasis on "two Americas," the rich one and the poor one, looked especially prescient after Katrina.
"What we've done for the hurricane victims is not something we did for them," he said. "What we do for the victims of poverty is not something we do for them. It is something we do for us. It makes us bigger, and stronger, and better."
Edwards mesmerized the crowd. Meeting later with reporters, he looked much less scripted and guarded than he usually did in the 2004 campaign.
Warner: Among Democratic insiders and pundits, Warner is among the hottest names in national politics. The Harvard law graduate is the multimillionaire former co-founder of Nextel. (Rather than asking audience members to turn off their cell phones, he asked that they turn them on: "You hear an annoying sound. I hear ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching.")
His basic message for political success: Results matter.
Warner came into office four years ago and faced a $6-billion deficit. He cut state spending, and then - in a notoriously antitax state - he pulled in business groups and moderate Republicans to pass a sweeping tax reform plan that included tax increases. He enjoys stratospheric approval ratings, and his lieutenant governor was just elected to succeed him, despite President Bush campaigning for his opponent.
His biggest applause line: calling on Democrats to focus more on promoting their own ideas and agenda and less on bashing Republicans.
"We as a Democratic Party are crazy if we keep putting up candidates and ideas that are only going to be competitive in 16 states," he said.
-- Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727 893-8241 or firstname.lastname@example.org