Ex-Sen. Cleland Emerges as Top Draw

Posted July 28, 2004 at 5:28pm

Already working overtime to put John Kerry in the White House, former Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) is becoming an increasingly sought-after political commodity on the Congressional campaign circuit.

Above and beyond Cleland’s prominent role in the Kerry effort, House and Senate campaign strategists are hoping to deploy the Purple Heart and Silver Star winner to as many states and districts as possible.

“We’re going to try to take every ounce out of him that we can,” said Sen. Jon Corzine (N.J.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Fresh off a jam-packed week of events in Boston — introducing Kerry tonight for his acceptance speech, speaking to at least nine different state delegation breakfasts, and leading Veterans for Kerry events, among others — Cleland heads to Virginia next week to stump for Al Weed. While Weed may be a long shot to unseat Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.), he’s a former Marine, making him an honorary member of Cleland’s growing political band of brothers.

The Weed trip follows up on a three-state swing he did over the Memorial Day recess on behalf of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.), Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.) and former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles.

After a raucous Veterans for Kerry event Monday before an overflow crowd of more than 1,000 at the Sheraton Boston Hotel, Cleland said he would do “all I can” for the Congressional campaigns.

“I’m just glad I can do it for my friends, that’s what the brotherhood is all about,” he added.

His former Senate colleagues might have been forgiven if they were a bit disappointed in Cleland for repeatedly rebuffing the requests of Corzine, Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other Democrats to run for the seat of retiring Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.). After losing a bruising race in 2002, Cleland was considered by many to be the only Democrat who could win the seat in the increasingly conservative Georgia, but he was emotionally exhausted from that grueling race and wanted no part of another campaign of his own.

His current appeal is two-fold for Kerry and other Democrats: a triple amputee from his days in the Vietnam War, Cleland’s war experience and a somewhat centrist voting record in the Senate makes him appealing to middle-of-the-road voters, while his campaign in 2002 has become the battle cry for a left-wing base in the 2004 campaign.

At a veterans event Monday, political celebrity James Carville let out a roar as he disparaged “Saxby Shameless” and the campaign that now-Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) ran in 2002, comparing this year’s rallying cry to “Remember the Alamo.”

“In this campaign here,” Carville bellowed, “we gonna take a solemn pledge right here: we gonna remember Max.”

This has spiked the demand for Cleland in the “red” states, the Southern and Western states where national Democrats have generally been told to stay out of when elections draw near.

Corzine noted that Democrats now had a trio of fairly high-profile surrogates who can campaign nationwide, with vice presidential nominee John Edwards (N.C.) and retired Gen. Wesley Clark having appeal in Southern and Western states.

“You had to be careful about bringing in outsiders to campaign for you,” said Sen. John Breaux (D-La.). “Democrats in the South have been hesitant to bring in outsiders.”

Yet Cleland has become the top draw in some Bush-leaning states. At the veterans event Monday, during a video montage of Kerry and his swift-boat comrades in Vietnam, Cleland’s image on the big screen drew louder cheers than Kerry’s.

One of the men seeking to replace the retiring Breaux, Rep. Chris John (D), would love to get Cleland into the Bayou State. “I would certainly welcome him in Louisiana,” John said.

Cleland’s role could be particularly crucial in the five open Senate seats in the South, as well as the battleground races in Oklahoma, South Dakota and Alaska. All eight of those states went for President Bush in 2000 — some by more than 20 points — and tend to skew conservative on values issues, not particularly fertile territory for big-name Democrats.

In his own race in 2002, Cleland didn’t have any national Democrats campaign for him in the final months of the race, a stark contrast to Chambliss and his GOP list of surrogates that included Bush, Vice President Cheney and Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

Some Democrats contend that surrogates, like endorsements, simply don’t deliver votes. “It’s like what Kirk Humphreys is finding — endorsements bring you all of their enemies and none of their friends,” said Rep. Brad Carson (Okla.), the Democratic Senate nominee, referring to the former GOP Oklahoma City mayor’s collapsed Senate primary bid.

Carson, who said he would welcome Cleland to Oklahoma, added that he has no set plan to bring in any outside Democrats, part of his strategy in a campaign that is arguably the most independent of Washington strategists run by any Senate Democratic candidate this cycle.

But other Democrats are thrilled at the prospect of having Cleland touch down in their states. “Because of his amazing story, he is a unique individual who is welcomed all over the country, if not the world,” Daschle said.

The impact of surrogates may be as minimal as Carson suggests, but the higher the profile of the stand-in, the more attention local media tend to give to a campaign event. Ever since his stewardship of post-9/11 New York City, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) has resulted in front-page stories almost anywhere he goes on behalf of GOP candidates.

Cleland is starting to have the same effect on races. His trip to Alaska on behalf of Knowles, who is challenging Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), landed on the front page of the Anchorage Daily News.

And Cleland’s following among some veterans is strong, even intense, giving candidates who don’t have similar personal experiences a chance to wrap themselves around someone who enjoys credibility with a group of voters not necessarily predisposed to like them.

“He has a tremendous following of veterans who view him as a hero,” Murray said. “He has a tremendous cachet.”

But Republicans contend, mostly in private, that Cleland has marginalized himself since losing to Chambliss. While the ads run against him were tough, mixed with images of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, they were based on his votes against the plan for homeland security endorsed by Miller.

GOP aides contend that Cleland has become a polarizing figure who harshly attacks Bush when he’s on the trail. Indeed, to hear Cleland and most Democrats tell it, Bush and his top aides must have been the ones cutting the commercials in the White House — in fact, it was Chambliss’ top consultant, Tom Perdue, who doesn’t work for Bush, who crafted the ads.

In his remarks to the veterans Monday, Cleland made reference to Bush’s service in the Air National Guard, implying he dodged service in Vietnam “by any means necessary.”

Democrats scoff at the idea that the veteran’s appearances come with any downside, saying Cleland was wronged by a mean-spirited GOP campaign operation. This passion borne of his defeat may give Republicans some ammunition to fire back at Cleland and whomever he’s campaigning for, but Democrats say that anger is what makes Cleland such an appealing surrogate for them.

“He’s doing this with a vengeance,” Breaux said, “with a spirit that can only come, perhaps, through a loss.”