Less than a week after conceding defeat to President Bush, Sen. John F. Kerry is calling key Democratic donors to lay the groundwork for a political organization that would give him a voice in national politics and position him for another White House run in 2008, close associates say.
His friends, contributors and former campaign aides say he was energized by winning almost 56 million votes -- more than any other candidate in U.S. history, except for Bush -- and intends to wield influence as the titular leader of the Democratic Party.
Kerry confidants said in interviews Monday that key members of the campaign’s finance team were planning to remain loyal to the 2004 nominee -- even as potential 2008 contenders such as Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and John Edwards of North Carolina begin building support -- in case he decides to run.
Those sentiments differ significantly from the attitudes expressed after Democratic losses in 1988 and 2000, when pressure mounted on nominees Michael S. Dukakis and Al Gore to step aside after what many party leaders considered error-plagued campaigns.
“After 1988 and 2000, there was a different sort of tone in the fundraising community,” said Robert Farmer, who was campaign treasurer for Dukakis in 1988 and Kerry this year. “They felt they had been let down. I don’t get that sense now.”
Unlike those campaigns, Farmer said, Kerry continues to enjoy loyalty among his key supporters. Farmer compared Kerry with two presidents who lost in their first bids for the job.
“There’s a tradition,” Farmer said. “Nixon ran and lost and then won, Reagan ran and lost, then won. In this case, you’ll have to look at the field and say to yourself, ‘Could another candidate have won states that John Kerry didn’t win?’ And my sense is that I don’t think anybody could have done much better than John Kerry did.”
Robert B. Crowe, a Kerry fundraiser and longtime friend, declined to say whether Kerry had talked with him about another presidential bid -- but Crowe said the finance team wasn’t going anywhere yet.
“We intend to stay together,” Crowe said. “I’m with him. I’ve been with him for 30 years.”
He added, “John Kerry is not going to fade away.”
Another major fundraiser, Boston businessman Alan Solomont, said Kerry called him last week to express his interest in remaining a player on the national stage.
“The senator’s standing and stature have increased enormously,” Solomont said. “He’s anxious to play a leadership role.”
A move by Kerry to solidify support so soon after what friends describe as a devastating loss reflects a conundrum for the Massachusetts senator, who has four years left in his term.
Despite being selected by his party as the nation’s potential 44th president, he returns to work next week as the junior senator from Massachusetts. With Republicans in control of the Senate, he is not likely to be a committee chairman, and the party’s most powerful national player is the prospective incoming Senate minority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada.
At a campaign staff party over the weekend at a Washington restaurant, Kerry discussed his intention to remain engaged. And although he did not specifically mention another White House bid, strategists familiar with his thinking said he was interested in exploring that potential.
Kerry has told advisors, for instance, that he hopes to have a say in the selection of the next Democratic National Committee chairman, although the advisors would not say whom Kerry favored for that post. The term of the current chairman, Terry McAuliffe, a longtime supporter and fundraiser for former President Clinton, expires early next year.
Kerry’s plans, associates say, include using a political action committee or similar organization to raise money over the next two years for Democratic senatorial and gubernatorial candidates across the country. Such a committee would also give Kerry a national platform to test his future viability.
“It would allow him, as a byproduct of staying on the stage in the Democratic Party, the opportunity to make a decision about his own future at a later date,” one of the strategists said.
Some leading Democrats have expressed discomfort in recent days with nominating a candidate from the Northeast in 2008, suggesting that the party needs a leader who can woo support from voters in Republican-leaning states.
Some have said the party should look past Kerry or Sen. Clinton to lesser-known contenders, such as Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner and North Carolina Gov. Michael F. Easley.
Despite Kerry’s lofty vote total, he still finished 3.5 million votes behind Bush, a president many Democrats considered vulnerable.
And although Democrats and independent groups tried to mobilize voters, the electoral map changed little from the 2000 results, with Republican-leaning states generally remaining red and the Democratic states generally staying blue.
Kerry’s decision to maintain a high profile adds another wrinkle to what is shaping up as a major battle for the future of the Democratic Party following Bush’s win and the GOP’s expanded majorities in both houses of Congress.
One of Kerry’s presidential primary foes, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, is reportedly interested in seeking the party chairmanship -- a development that could put the party far to the left of where many leaders think it could best sway voters in states that backed Bush.