A year away from the Democratic presidential primaries, let's go
out on a limb and make two predictions. First, former House Minority Leader
Richard Gephardt of Missouri will be a surprise frontrunner after the Iowa
caucus. Second, newly announced candidate Sen. Bob Graham of Florida will be
a lock for the Democratic nomination for vice president. Who will actually
win the bid to take on George W. Bush is totally up in the air, and chances
still appear slim that anyone can defeat the president.
As noted several weeks ago in our national survey of 1,000
Americans, President Bush continues to run strong against the entire field
of potential Democratic candidates. The exclusive InsiderAdvantage February
poll showed 48 percent of respondents would vote to re-elect Bush against 31
percent for all Democratic challengers combined.
Our polls also revealed a so-far undisclosed secret that might
explain Bush's popularity, despite continuing uncertainty with Iraq and the
stock market. When respondents in February were asked if they "are better
off today than they were four years ago," 53 percent said yes. Only 30
percent said no, with the rest saying they consider themselves about the
same or that they are undecided on the issue.
Democrats must be pounding their fists in political frustration
when they see no gains in public opinion over developments that would
normally trigger public discontent. Whatever the reason for Bush's continued
popularity, it remains an uphill battle for any potential Democratic
presidential nominee in 2004.
Newest among those challengers, as predicted in this column in
early January, is Florida's Sen. Graham. The Capitol Hill veteran polled
poorly in our first two monthly surveys of the potential 2004 Democratic
field, but this means little in itself. Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman
continues to lead our presidential survey of announced Democrats, but this
likely is more a function of his national name recognition than of his
having the necessary strength in key primary states. Races for party
presidential nominations are the ultimate chess match, and you can't always
checkmate until you've first captured pawns such as Iowa and New Hampshire.
Plus, Graham's entry into the race deals a serious blow to
Lieberman in Florida, which is one critical state where he might otherwise
gain electoral footing. Lieberman's presence on the 2000 ticket with Al Gore
served to energize a significant and powerful Jewish voter bloc in South
Florida. Absent Graham in the 2004 race, those who cannot forget the
perceived injustice of Gore's 2000 defeat in the deadlocked Sunshine State
would naturally gravitate to Lieberman's column. But now Graham, one of the
strongest and most successful Democrats in modern Florida history, likely
will remain on his state's presidential ballot, regardless of how he fares
in earlier primaries. That can only hurt Lieberman's chances.
Last year, our Super Poll of presidential candidates, which
surveyed Iowa and New Hampshire voters only, showed that without an Al Gore
candidacy, Rep. Gephardt would enjoy a strong base in Iowa. So far, Gephardt
has done little to damage his appeal to that state's voters. With
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry running virtually as a favorite son in New
Hampshire, Lieberman and the rest of the Democratic field may have to make
up for lost ground later by pulling in the lion's share of the huge number
of delegates left in the remaining primaries. But will they have the early
momentum to pull that off?
That leads us back to Graham. Aside from its abundance of
delegates, Florida is seen by most experts as a must state for the Democrats
if they are to have a shot at beating Bush in the general election. Given
the solid trouncing that presidential brother Gov. Jeb Bush gave his
well-funded Democratic opponent in last fall's gubernatorial re-election
campaign, it may take a miracle to put Florida back in the Democratic column
And therein lies the secret of Bob Graham's campaign. After
having recently undergone heart surgery, one might wonder why a successful
U.S. senator would choose to pass up another re-election bid in favor of the
rigors of a presidential race. The answer seems plain enough. Graham can
enter the earlier primaries reasonably assured that no candidate will emerge
as a clear frontrunner. In that event, two alternatives emerge. If lightning
strikes, Graham's tough position on homeland security might shove him to the
front of the pack. If not, he still appears to be in a strong position not
only to play power broker in his popular home state, but also to offer his
party its only reasonable chance of winning Florida in 2004 -- by making him
its vice-presidential nominee.
Regardless, it appears the Democrats will need more than Bob
Graham to defeat Bush who, in a rough economy and faced with an
uncooperative international community, still has most Americans feeling
better than they did four years ago.