An Opportunity Wasted?

Posted June 4, 2003 at 5:56pm

Last winter New Hampshire state Sen. Burt Cohen (D) wasted what some might consider a golden political opportunity: to become one of the most sought-after public figures in the state that hosts the all-important first in the nation presidential primary.

As the only announced Democratic challenger to Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) in 2004, Cohen had the chance to be courted by the cadre of Democratic presidential hopefuls now making weekly trips to the Granite State to mine support and key endorsements.

Instead, he passed on that opening and in December announced his support of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), becoming the first major elected New Hampshire Democrat to take sides in the primary. The endorsement came even before Cohen officially filed his Senate exploratory committee.

“A lot of people asked why he didn’t play coy, like so many other politicos who use it to their advantage,” said Cohen campaign manager Jesse Burchfield.

“That’s just the way he works,” Burchfield added. After meeting with the top contenders, Cohen, he said, “wanted to go with who he thought would be the” best candidate from the outset of the campaign.

The early endorsement has already paid some dividends for Cohen, a self-described underdog who faces long odds in unseating the popular two-term Senator in 2004.

Kerry recently signed a national fundraising letter for Cohen, and other collaborative fundraising efforts are in the works for the two campaigns, Burchfield said, although he declined to discuss them.

“We’ve been working hard for the Kerry campaign. And they’ve been very helpful to us,” Burchfield said. “We’ve really been working as a team.”

Cohen, a seven-term lawmaker, reported raising $116,000 in the first quarter of the year and ended March with almost $88,000 in the bank. Gregg, a former Congressman and governor, raised $479,000 over the same period and had $768,000 in cash on hand.

Still, some continue to scratch their heads at Cohen’s decision to endorse at the earliest possible point in the presidential race, noting that the Senate hopeful could have reaped a much greater financial and grassroots windfall had he waited.

“In retrospect his campaign has to be saying to themselves, ‘Why didn’t we wait a little longer and watch how things play out?’ … so that they could take advantage of appearing with all of the candidates and being courted by all of the candidates,” noted one Democratic observer. “He may have been able to have John Kerry, [Rep.] Dick Gephardt [Mo.], [former Vermont Gov.] Howard Dean and [Sen.] John Edwards [N.C.] send out fundraising letters for him if he’d waited.”

Cohen, who helped get out the vote for then-Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 presidential primary campaign, could have also mined support from Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), Gore’s running mate and one of the nine 2004 candidates.

The 52-year-old state Senator frequently runs into the other White House hopefuls as they make the rounds at many of the same events, and Burchfield said he maintains cordial relationships with all of them. And while he hasn’t asked the other presidential campaigns for help or support, Cohen did make a concerted effort to compile a presidentially “diverse” campaign team. Cohen’s exploratory committee is comprised of individuals supporting several of the other White House candidates.

“We purposely made sure that our team is diverse,” Burchfield said.

The campaign manager also dismissed the current party infighting, illustrated most prominently by recent clashes between Kerry and Dean, as “inside baseball” that few primary voters are paying attention to. He said Democrats in the state will come together following next year’s primary because they all hold the underlying belief that “any one of these guys will be better than the current administration.”

That unity will be crucial for Cohen next November, months after the presidential primary is over.

“When all the candidates leave at the end of January next year, Senator Cohen still has to stay and face the state,” Burchfield said.