Democrats Vie For Support

Posted May 20, 2003 at 6:44pm

Still seething over Vice President Al Gore’s refusal to visit North Dakota in the 2000 presidential race, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said his endorsement of a candidate in 2004 will hinge on that person’s willingness to campaign in small states.

“I am in the process of writing a letter to all of the candidates saying to them my support is going to be dependent — even of the nominee — is going to be dependent on whether they are going to run a national campaign and bother to stop in states like North Dakota,” Dorgan said in an interview Tuesday. “The Gore-Lieberman ticket made no stops despite repeated requests. I am not going to go through that again.”

Dorgan’s declaration comes as the nine presidential candidates weigh the value of spending a tremendous amount of time courting their Congressional colleagues to publicly support their candidacies. So far, seven of the nine Democratic candidates have found support on Capitol Hill. And several presidential aspirants, such as Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), have put a premium on touting the backing of their Congressional colleagues.

Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) have not yet announced the names of any Members who have pledged to support their presidential bids.

“Our strategy is to appeal to voters, especially in the early primary states,” said Jamal Simmons, a Graham spokesman. “We are going to devote our time and resources so that they have the maximum impact in those states who will choose the nominee.”

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) received a high-profile endorsement late last month when Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) — a rising black Southern star in the Democratic Party — announced he was backing the Massachusetts Democrat. But Ford is just one of four Members to publicly endorse Kerry, who has yet to unveil the support of Massachusetts’ 10 House Members. There is little question that Kerry will receive the support of each of these Members, but some Bay State Democrats believe Kerry is strategically withholding the endorsements in an attempt to broaden his appeal among Democratic voters.

“They are trying to shed the Massachusetts liberal image and sticking 10 Massachusetts liberals on your endorsement list doesn’t help,” said a Bay State Democratic operative not affiliated with a presidential candidate.

A Kerry spokesman sharply disputed that assertion, pointing to the very public support of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Barney Frank’s (D-Mass.) work as a surrogate on Kerry’s behalf.

“Although our strategic focus has not been on announcing endorsements but instead leveraging political support from home, Massachusetts Democrats and the state’s Congressional delegation have been enormously helpful to John Kerry’s presidential campaign,” said David Wade, a Kerry spokesman. “We’re excited to rely on them even more as the pace of the campaign picks up.”

“We’ll formally roll out endorsements at a time and in a manner that makes sense from a political and message standpoint,” Wade added.

As a former House Democratic leader, Gephardt would appear to have the inside track for House Members’ endorsements, but at a news conference last week the campaign produced only 30 House Members — a fact not overlooked by rival campaigns.

“Mr. Gephardt said at the press conference with [House Minority Leader Nancy] Pelosi [D-Calif.] and [House Minority Whip Steny] Hoyer [D-Md.] this is the beginning, not the end,” said Erik Smith, Gephardt’s spokesman. “You will see more announcements in key states over the course of the year.”

While House Democrats are starting to pledge their support for individual presidential candidates, only four Senate Democrats have made their support known. Vermont Sens. Jim Jeffords (I) and Patrick Leahy (D) are backing former Green Mountain State Gov. Howard Dean; Sen. Chris Dodd

(D-Conn.) has endorsed Lieberman; and Kennedy is supporting Kerry.

Dorgan said two presidential candidates have approached him seeking his support, but he has given no commitments. Instead, Dorgan wants a pledge from the candidates to “wage a national campaign” allowing North Dakota and other less populous states a chance to participate in the process.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he has not been asked by former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.) to support her bid, but he also pointed out that it is still too early in the process to pick a candidate.

“I am not sure the field is complete or final,” Durbin said. “I have been through this a few times now and what looks so clear in May the year before the election, nothing is clear until closer to the election.”

While rival campaigns evaluate the worth of a Congressional colleague’s endorsement, senior campaign aides seem to agree that it is essentially worthless unless the endorsee plays an active role.

Perhaps two of the most prized endorsements, those of Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), remain unclaimed and will continue that way for the foreseeable future.

Throughout the summer, Harkin will host forums for each individual candidate (he has already hosted two) to introduce them to the Iowa voters who will make the first official pronouncement about who should be the Democratic nominee in January.

“I have not made up my mind yet,” Harkin said. “I have promised each of the candidates that through all these forums I am going to be an honest broker.

“I want each one of them to have their shot in Iowa,” added Harkin, who would not rule out backing a candidate after the forums wrap up in September.

Hollings, who represents the first Southern state primary, reiterated his pledge not to support a candidate until the primary is decided. “It would dampen the interest of participation,” Hollings said.

Several Democrats, including Dorgan, Durbin and Harkin, agreed it was likely that Senators would start publicly announcing support for candidates starting the fall.