Thursday, October 04, 2007

Biden and Dodd: Still Looking for Their Opening

By Stuart Rothenberg

As the World Series approaches, two U.S. Senators, Connecticut’s Chris Dodd and Delaware’s Joseph Biden, find themselves roughly in the same place that they were at the beginning of spring training: second-tier hopefuls for the Democratic presidential nomination regarded by journalists and most Democrats as mere long shots.

Both men continue to need at least one of the frontrunners to make a mistake, which would give them an opening. That already has happened in the Republican race, where early favorite Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) stumbled, but it has not happened in the Democratic contest.

In the race for the White House, Biden and Dodd are classic “in-betweeners.” As longtime members of the Senate who have had visibility and clout, they surely deserve to be taken far more seriously as presidential candidates than either Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) or former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel.

Yet Biden and Dodd are just as clearly not in the same league as two of their Senate colleagues, Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.), or even as former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.).

Just look at the fundraising numbers. Through the second quarter of this year, the Biden campaign had taken in $6.5 million, while Dodd’s campaign had hauled in a more respectable $12 million. Those fundraising figures dwarf Kucinich’s ($1.1 million) and Gravel’s ($239,000) but don’t come close to Edwards’ ($23.1 million), Obama’s ($58.9 million) or Clinton’s ($63 million).

Money, of course, isn’t everything. But Dodd and Biden remain asterisks in national and early state polls, trailing the three first-tier candidates. They also trail a fourth candidate, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has made far more headway in surveys of likely Iowa caucus attendees. (Richardson had raised $13.3 million through the end of June.)

Conversations with Democratic insiders and strategists not working for any of the candidates produced a handful of explanations for Biden’s and Dodd’s problems.

Their biggest problem seems to be the amount of space already taken by the top-tier hopefuls.

“The press never covers more than three candidates for anything. If you’re fourth, you’re out of luck,” said one Democratic strategist.

“Clinton, Obama and Edwards take up a lot of space, a lot of airtime and a lot of votes,” said another Democrat, agreeing that there simply was not a room left for other candidates who needed the visibility to gain credibility.

Biden, 64, and Dodd, 63, have another problem: Both essentially are establishment candidates, having served a total of 62 years in the Senate (Biden 35, Dodd 27). Yet the cycle appears to be much more about change and fresh faces.

That isn’t to say that experience doesn’t matter. But, as one Democrat put it, “The establishment, experience niche has already been filled [by Clinton].”

Biden’s great strength going into the race is his expertise in foreign policy. Early on, he proposed a federal approach to post-war Iraq, an approach that seems to have become increasingly popular and that passed the Senate as an amendment to the Defense authorization bill.

But Biden’s rhetoric and position on Iraq always have been more measured than many in the party’s grass roots would prefer, which has greatly limited his appeal to the anti-war left. Just as important, Clinton has done a good job stressing “expertise” and “experience,” and her more moderate positioning on the war initially (compared to Edwards and Obama, for example) made it difficult for Biden to distinguish himself on the issue.

Now that the country, Democratic activists and all of the Democratic candidates have become more critical of Bush’s Iraq policy, Biden has little opportunity on his party’s “right.”

Far more than any other Democrat (with the exception of Richardson), Biden has earned a reputation for being refreshingly candid, even when others in his party don’t want to hear it. No, he isn’t the Democrats’ John McCain, but he’s the closest thing they have in the race to the maverick Arizona Republican.

Biden has been endorsed by 10 Iowa state legislators and, as former Roll Call reporter Chris Cillizza noted recently, is moving staff to the state as he “puts all his chips on Iowa.”

Dodd’s problems are worse. “He doesn’t have a hook,” said one party insider, adding, “he’s had a lot of trouble distinguishing himself.” Another Democrat says Dodd is “as conventional as Kucinich is unconventional.”

In other words, Dodd sounds like a generic Democratic politician, and he has displayed surprisingly little warmth as a candidate. Even his efforts to crank up his volume over Iraq haven’t done much more than make him a less compelling carbon copy of Edwards.

Last week, Dodd’s campaign crowed that Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas Zuniga had voted for the Senator in a recent straw poll. This follows an endorsement of Dodd by the International Association of Fire Fighters, which endorsed Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) early in the previous cycle.

But these endorsements aren’t likely to boost his standing in national or early state polls, which is what he needs to convince skeptics that he is a contender. Even California-based Moulitsas seemed skeptical after acknowledging that he had “voted” for Dodd: “Not that this means he’s likely to get my vote in [the] February [primary]. I don’t throw away my votes, so unless he’s become surprisingly competitive in January, I’ll be looking elsewhere.”

Neither Biden nor Dodd has much of a reason to end his candidacy until Iowa. But after months of campaigning, the two Senators face the same challenges that they did in January.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on October 1, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.