Early Birds Begin 2008 Courtship Dance

Times Staff Writer

When Congress began its August recess, Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana took a weekend off, then headed straight back to the Midwest -- to Iowa.

“It’s good to be out of Washington and back out in the real world,” he told a small gathering of party loyalists, chomping fresh ears of corn at a Black Hawk County fundraising dinner.

It may seem early for Bayh, who is eyeing a 2008 White House bid, to be campaigning, more than 1,000 days before the next presidential election and less than 10 months since the last one ended. But he’s not the first to arrive in Iowa or to show up in New Hampshire, the two states that traditionally start the nominating process.


Already, well over a dozen prospective candidates from both parties have visited the two states or taken other steps toward a possible run for president. For some, that has meant penning political books (Democratic Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware), for others, toughening their stance on social issues to woo conservatives (Republican Govs. George E. Pataki of New York and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts) or revving up political action committees (Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa, Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas).

Many observers say they cannot remember an earlier or more intensive start to a presidential campaign.

“As soon as I got into town last week people went through a laundry list of who’s coming through,” said Joe Grandmaison, a longtime Democratic activist who divides his time between Washington and a home on New Hampshire’s rugged Seacoast. “My reaction was, ‘My, God! I plan to work on a tan.’ ”

But there is good reason for the early activity, observers agree. The 2008 presidential election is likely to be the first in more than 50 years without a president or vice president in the running. Although opinion polls have established nominal front-runners on both sides -- McCain and former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani among Republicans, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York for Democrats -- analysts say the fight for the White House is unusually wide open.

“Right now you could flip a 12-sided coin and come up with the nominee,” Craig Shirley, a veteran GOP strategist, said of the Republican race.

It will be some time before the presidential field is firmly fixed. Several of those who may run -- including Clinton and Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico -- must first survive November 2006 reelections before setting their sights any higher. (Among others with terms expiring next year, Pataki said he would not seek another term as New York governor, and Romney might follow suit in Massachusetts, the better to focus on a White House bid.)


That makes the next 16 or so months a time of test drives and tire-kicking for the would-be candidates, most of whom are actively reaching out to major donors, top party strategists and the hardest of hard-core political activists. It is this small group of hyper-involved partisans who provide the early money and support that, eventually, can allow the most successful contestants to build a nationwide following once the rest of the country starts paying attention.

“Many of the candidates are known only as names and not individuals,” said Bill Dal Col, a Republican strategist who ran publisher Steve Forbes’ 1996 and 2000 presidential bids. “People in Iowa and New Hampshire want to get to know you individually, or feel they do.... That kind of courtship takes a lot of time and effort.”

It is also no small feat to raise the estimated $30 million to $50 million it may take to seriously compete for the presidential nomination in 2008. “Candidates have to look and see if, realistically, there is a way to get there,” Dal Col said, and that involves multiple conversations with major donors and repeat trips to such political money centers as Los Angeles, New York, Dallas, Atlanta and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Not every candidate mulling over a White House campaign will follow through. Former Missouri congressman and House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt, for instance, spent “an enormous amount of time” in 1998 and 1999 preparing to seek the presidency before skipping the 2000 race, said Steve Elmendorf, a top advisor at the time. He said the exploratory process was crucial to Gephardt’s decision.

“A large part of it is getting a sense from the candidates’ point of view of whether or not they really want to do this,” said Elmendorf, who advised Gephardt when he sought the White House last year. “Lots of people want to be president, but they’ve got to figure out: ‘What do I have to offer that’s going to make people want me to be president?’ It’s not something people wake up with one morning crystallized in their head. A lot of it comes from being out there, talking to people, test-driving their message.”

Iowa, accustomed to being courted, is a perfect place for early White House auditions -- provided a candidate is willing to face the occasional blow to the ego.


In Hudson, Bayh was greeting Democrats at the Black Hawk County dinner when Bob Johnson, a 76-year-old building inspector, boomed in a voice nearly as loud as his purple plaid shirt: “What are you running for?”

“I’m tonight’s guest speaker,” replied the senator, a boyish-looking 49.

“I figured you must be running for something,” Johnson said gruffly, then proceeded down the buffet toward the chicken and fish entrees.

The speech Bayh delivered to the crowd of about 60 partisans sounded familiar Democratic themes from the 2004 campaign: a call for energy independence, complaints about unfair trade and the federal deficit and criticism of President Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq, though he sidestepped his own vote to authorize the use of force.

“We can do better than the false bravado of ‘bring ‘em on’ -- remember that? We can do better than the illusion of ‘mission accomplished,’ ” Bayh said, throwing the words back at the president, though offering little in the way of a policy alternative.

Another echo of 2004 was Bayh’s grandiose speaking style, reminiscent of Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, as if the location was Capitol Hill rather than a small brick community center in the midst of a green sea of corn and soybeans.

Still, Bayh seemed to make a favorable impression on some of his Midwest neighbors just by showing up.


“I don’t like watching someone simply on the tube saying this or that. I like to meet them in person,” said Juanita Hockey, 71, a retired bookkeeper from nearby Waterloo, who said she would never support a candidate she hadn’t personally inspected.

For his part, Bayh told reporters his visit was “the beginning of a longer conversation” with Iowa voters. His three-day visit included a series of private meetings with activists across the state and several appearances in and around Des Moines, the capital. Still, Bayh indicated he was not entirely sure he would end up running for president, saying a final decision would come no later than January 2007.

If the candidates, Democrat and Republican alike, are playing coy, most political activists are holding back as well, fearful of jumping on a bandwagon that could collapse before the contest gets seriously underway.

“It’s fairly cautious because you don’t know who’s going to get in to stay,” said Steve Grubbs, a former Iowa Republican Party chairman who has spoken with two prospective GOP contestants so far, but plans to stay neutral for a good while. “If you get out there with someone who doesn’t stick with it, suddenly you’re sort of at the end of the line for someone you may sign up with ultimately.”

The romancing of donors and key party activists is a delicate dance at this point, with a protocol that is almost quaintly reserved, said Grubbs and others.

Though conversation is encouraged and flattery welcomed, asking outright for a pledge of support is generally considered too forward. A face-to-face meeting is preferable, when possible, and a small token is appropriate -- say, a copy of a speech on a topic of particular interest or an autographed edition of a candidate’s memoirs.


“It’s a soft touch” rather than a hard sell, said Shirley, the veteran GOP strategist who has heard from a handful of Republican hopefuls this year asking for advice or calling to chat about his recent book on Ronald Reagan. “They want to get together, have you read some of the material they’ve written, meet with their political guy.”

The elected officials of Iowa and New Hampshire, with their proven ability to muster support in those pivotal states, are among the most desirable catches.

Last month, when Democratic state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro of Manchester, N.H., celebrated his 67th birthday, John Edwards, the former vice presidential candidate and North Carolina senator, showed up.

Earlier this year, D’Allesandro visited Delaware for a private lunch at Biden’s home, where he shared his concerns on U.S.-Cuba relations with the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

He has also discussed presidential politics with Bayh and Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, who is among those weighing a White House bid.

“Sometimes you’d rather be lucky than smart,” D’Allesandro said of all the attention he had enjoyed. “Or be a New Hampshirite.”