Convention calculation

May 31, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Democrats already planning for their 2004 national convention are in a tizzy over an astute maneuver by the Republicans that could smother their message at the time they are laboring to give their next presidential nominee the best possible introduction to American voters.

What has the Democrats chagrined is the Republican Party's decision to hold its national convention from the last two days in August 2004 through the first two days of September -- six weeks after the Democrats' tentative convention dates in mid-July.

That six-week gap poses both a political and a financial dilemma for the Democrats. First, it means whatever public opinion bounce the Democratic nominee might get from his convention could fade by the time the presumptive Republican nominee, President Bush, carrying out his highly publicized presidential duties all the while, is finally renominated.

Also, during that six-week period, for more than two weeks in August, the Summer Olympics will be held in Athens. Predictably, it will gobble up much television time and audience, ending only the day before the Republican convention starts on Aug. 30. The Democrats fear a virtual message blackout over all that time.

The money problem for the Democratic nominee will be more specific. Once a party standard-bearer is officially nominated, he will be entitled to a fixed sum of federal money -- estimated at about $74 million for the 2004 general election -- provided he agrees not to raise campaign funds himself. If the Democratic nominee is confirmed six weeks before the Republican convention, he will have to start spending down the subsidy that much earlier.

That prospect is particularly unnerving for the Democrats because there is a growing expectation that Mr. Bush will in fact eschew the federal money and rely entirely on his demonstrated huge fund-raising capability to pay his own way right through the November election.

In 2000, candidate Bush passed up the federal subsidy available for the Republican primaries and raised so much money that the field of about a dozen GOP presidential aspirants, all taking the limited federal payout, eventually had to drop out. He did take the federal subsidy in his general election race against Al Gore, but as the sitting president he is in a much stronger fund-raising position now.

According to Democratic National Committee sources, the original Democratic dates in July are probably going to be abandoned and the Democratic convention moved closer to the opening of the Olympics on Aug. 13. It might even be rescheduled immediately after the Republican convention in September, producing what would be one of the shortest presidential general elections on record.

The advantage of such a move for the Democrats would be to recover the public's ear and make the most of the usual favorable boost in public approval after a convention, just as voters are focusing more on the election. They are also considering shortening their 2004 convention from the traditional five-day event, to save time and money and, possibly, retain greater viewership. That way they could squeeze their convention between the end of the GOP convention and Labor Day, the traditional kickoff of the fall campaign.

All these calculations, and the Democrats' distress, are premised on the assumption that Mr. Bush will remain as popular as he is today, or nearly so. It also is assumed that the Democrats will be fighting an uphill battle against him and, for that reason, would be disadvantaged by a shorter campaign.

But such assumptions in presidential politics have a way of turning sour, as the senior President George Bush learned from early 1991, when he was riding high as the commander in chief of the swiftly successful gulf war, to his defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton in November 1992.

Still, the Democrats charged with planning their party's next national convention as a launching platform for regaining the White House have reason to fear they are being outfoxed on the election year calendar more than two years before they hope to trot out their nominee under optimum conditions.

Jules Witcover's column from The Sun's Washington bureau appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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