Monday, March 19, 2007

Want a Presidential Nomination? Then Run for It!

By Stuart Rothenberg

Ladies and gentlemen, tonight the role of Hamlet, previously played by former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo (D), will be played by Chuck Hagel.

After a few days of frenzied speculation about whether Hagel would seek the Republican nomination for president, the Nebraska Senator announced on Monday that he would make a decision later in the year. So we have yet another announcement about an announcement. How exciting.

Anyway, Hagel’s “non-announcement” means you can add his name to the list of names already circulating as possible late entrants into the 2008 presidential race, including former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and former Vice President Al Gore.

While Hagel still dangles his potential candidacy tantalizingly, Gingrich has been more explicit about his timeline. He’ll make a decision in September about whether to enter the fray. Gore, on the other hand, hasn’t openly encouraged speculation of his candidacy, but he hasn’t exactly ruled it out in a Sherman-esque way.

As entertaining as all of this gamesmanship is, it’s about time for someone to state the obvious: If you aren’t in the race very soon, your chances of being nominated are nil.

Gingrich’s strategy of keeping his name out there until late in the summer (or later), after which he’ll make a decision about whether to run, is about as flaky as anything I’ve heard recently.

By the time Independence Day rolls around, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) and others will have spent months running around the country, raising money, wooing primary voters and caucus attendees, putting together county organizations in key early states, and building a national network of supporters.

Gingrich seems to think that many Republicans aren’t in love with any of the GOP frontrunners, and he is correct. But he is wrong if he thinks they are in love with him. The idea that rank-and-file Republicans are waiting for the former Speaker to arrive on his white horse to save his party might make for a nice made-for-television movie, but if so I’d suggest it would be more appropriate for the SciFi Channel than HBO.

Gingrich shows up in third or fourth place in many national and early state polls because many Republicans remember him from his years in Congress and from his appearances on television. But that doesn’t mean that most voters remember him in an unabashedly positive way.

Voters want to see a candidate’s passion for office, and that means going out there and working for the nomination. By sitting on the sidelines for so long, Gingrich is saying that he isn’t all that passionate about the presidency. And his strategy of waiting to make a decision reeks of arrogance.

Say what you want about Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), Democratic Sens. Chris Dodd (Conn.) and Joseph Biden (Del.), and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), but at least they are putting themselves in a position to catch fire by running real campaigns.

And if electability is really as important as many think, a Gingrich candidacy is a non-starter. As a general election nominee, Gingrich would be a train wreck.

Hagel’s non-decision may well have something to do with Congressional staffer-turned actor-turned-Senator-turned-actor Fred Thompson’s recent announcement that he is being urged to enter the GOP race. Thompson and Hagel were two of McCain’s biggest boosters in the Senate when the Arizonan ran for his party’s nomination in 2000, and it is difficult to imagine a race with enough room for both of them.

Whatever he and Thompson are thinking, it’s getting late for new entries into the race. Given that a lot of political talent already has signed up with one of the presidential campaigns, and that fundraisers and contributors already are choosing a hopeful, time is running out for any Republican who thinks that he can put together the kind of presidential campaign that can win.

Hagel’s indecision is another problem in itself. Presidential elections invariably are about leadership, and hemming and hawing about whether you are going to run is not a sign of strength or leadership.

On the Democratic side, the situation is even worse for a late entry. Democrats have at least three serious contenders for their party’s nomination, and there is little sign of a vacuum in that contest.

With former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) carrying the liberal/progressive banner, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) presenting himself as the hope of the future and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) rallying a wide array of supporters in the party, it’s unclear why anyone (other than a Hollywood celebrity, that is) would think that the Democratic Party needs Al Gore.

As in the GOP race, Democratic fundraisers, strategists and key local activists in Iowa and New Hampshire already have chosen sides. Gore certainly has a following on blogs and in Hollywood, and his entry into the race certainly would make a splash and propel him into the top tier. But Gore would have to fight it out for his party’s nomination, and that’s not something that he shows signs of wanting to do.

The calendar says it is early in the 2008 presidential race, but insiders know otherwise. Activity has been under way for months, and it will pick up even more in the next few weeks. Anyone who is serious about running better jump in now. And even that may be too late.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 15, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.