Inside the numbers: beating W

Posted: May 06, 2003 12:00 AM

To gain the honor of potentially getting smashed by George W. Bush in the November 2004 presidential election, some of the Democratic challengers may have to implement some unique strategic moves to earn their party's nomination.

Bush's only potential Achilles heel remains the economy. That possibility has political pundits wondering whether they can go ahead and script a Bush post-war nosedive -- a la Bush senior in 1992 -- or if the president's re-election campaign will more closely resemble the GOP landslides of Nixon in '72 and Reagan in '84.

The kickoff Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina over the weekend came at an opportune time. Our latest InsiderAdvantage national survey of the race shows President Bush maintaining a 16-point lead over all announced Democratic challengers combined, with nearly a quarter of the respondents saying they are undecided. After Saturday's debate, I have serious doubts that any Democrat can overcome the nation's strong liking for Bush.

Be that as it may, the 4,500 polling interviews we conducted over the past four months reveal a few emerging trends among the hopefuls from the opposition party. The cumulative national poll, with a margin of error of less than 3 percent, shows Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman consistently leading the pack among respondents that support a Democratic challenger. Lieberman enjoys 20 percent support, with Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry tied at 12 percent each. All other candidates, including the "fresh new face" of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, and Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, are well below 10 percent each.

The South Carolina debate field got mixed reviews. No candidate stood out, although the clashes between Kerry and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean received the most media ink.

Given the likely order of next year's primaries and caucuses, cold (though perhaps unconventional) logic suggests that some of the Democratic field might be wise to sit out some of the early contests. That strategy could allow them to be on firmer footing when the larger bloc of delegates goes up for grabs in bigger states.

Gephardt -- a former winner of the Iowa caucuses -- could take off with an early win there or in another early round contest. If he doesn't, he may be forced to somehow fashion himself as the "viable moderate" in the South Carolina primary, which follows the New Hampshire primary by one week.

Imagine that -- Dick Gephardt, the moderate in a field of Democrats! But in this year's field of mostly liberal candidates, that's exactly where he stands -- or can, if he plays his cards wisely. The same can't be said for Kerry and Dean. Along with frontrunner Lieberman, they will have to spill much blood and bucks to win their New England neighborhood squabble in New Hampshire. Lieberman will be the moderate there, and he'll need to fare well to make it in good standing to the round of multiple-state primaries that come later.

Now comes the tricky part. Is it really wise for John Edwards -- the man with the Clintonesque southern appeal -- to risk early humiliation in Iowa and New Hampshire? Wouldn't he be better off putting all his cash and effort into winning South Carolina, his native state and the neighboring state to his current home of North Carolina? Sure, we're hearing that Edwards is developing strong grassroots in Iowa. But it seems more likely that this unknown alleged "golden boy" could use his connections to trial attorneys, unions and Southern politicians more effectively were he not to exhaust his organization in early contests that might have less to do with who ultimately wins the nomination.

Florida's Graham has an even bigger decision to make. Florida is not considered a traditional Southern state. That means South Carolina could prove as big a drain on his resources as New Hampshire or Iowa. With Republican Congressman Mark Foley already raising millions for Graham's Senate seat in Florida, it looks like Graham may be committed to the presidential contest. So why shouldn't he concentrate on potentially friendlier states that will vote all on the same day? He could then follow with a massive "favorite son" campaign in the Sunshine State.

The early primaries could be a waste for Graham and Edwards. Especially since the media seems to be marginalizing the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire while hinting that South Carolina will be the first true test. And considering what happened in the 2000 Bush-Gore race, Florida is now the prized possession in electoral politics. One of these candidates might take such a strategy and ride it to an upset nomination.

Strategy aside, all Democrats must be daunted by the task ahead. Our latest survey shows President Bush with a 67 percent approval rating. If the economy gains even a little traction, the Democratic primaries could turn out to be little more than entertainment for political junkies. The rest of America may not care.