An army of also-rans

February 21, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Dennis J. Kucinich for president? Carol Moseley-Braun? Al Sharpton? Howard Dean and Gary Hart, for that matter?

On paper, anyway, none of these five presidential hopefuls stirs visions of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR or even Bill Clinton.

Yet each has either jumped into the race for the 2004 Democratic nomination or is poised on the brink - this political season's versions of Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes and all the other forgettables of previous presidential years.

None except Mr. Hart, a former Colorado senator and brief 1988 Democratic presidential frontrunner, has achieved any national distinction, and his has been distinctly mixed. Mr. Dean was a good if unspectacular governor of little Vermont for five two-year terms. Mr. Kucinich was a one-term mayor of Cleveland who escaped recall in the late 1970s before becoming an Ohio congressman barely six years ago.

Ms. Moseley-Braun served one term in the U.S. Senate from Illinois before being defeated for re-election in 1998 under a cloud of suspected campaign finance irregularities. As for civil rights activist Sharpton, he is probably best known outside New York for his conviction of having defamed a former prosecutor in an interracial kidnapping and rape case that proved to be a hoax.

Why do they run? Mr. Hart and Mr. Dean at least have the understandable grounds of lengthy and credible public service. Mr. Hart, since his fall from grace in the Donna Rice fiasco, has developed expertise on Russian affairs and national defense, especially in relation to homeland security.

Mr. Dean can point to the phenomenon of Jimmy Carter, who as an obscure, modest former one-term governor of Georgia parlayed the American distaste for conniving politicians on the heels of the Watergate cover-up into one term in the Oval Office.

But what of Ms. Moseley-Braun, Mr. Sharpton and Mr. Kucinich? The old bromide that every mother's son can grow up to be president is fanciful. All three will be seen with considerable justification as appealing to a constituency too narrow to bring any of them the Democratic nomination.

Ms. Moseley-Braun and Mr. Sharpton will be further undercut by each contesting for the votes of fellow African-Americans. The polarizing Mr. Sharpton particularly can be counted on to rally a massive white vote against him if he should get very far in the primaries. Jesse Jackson in 1988 found that out when, after surviving early tests, he ran one-on-one against Michael Dukakis and was stopped cold by white voters.

As for Mr. Kucinich, he will be seen as a candidate only as formidable as the anti-war issue he wholeheartedly espouses. But Mr. Kucinich is aware, as Mr. Bauer was in 2000 in injecting abortion into that year's political debate, that there is no better vehicle for attracting news media coverage to a cause than a presidential candidacy.

That's why, along with otherwise incomprehensible ego, candidates who have nothing or little in their resumes to recommend them as serious aspirants for the White House enter the ranks anyway.

The allegedly "legitimate" candidates such as Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and John Edwards of North Carolina and former House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt may grouse about having to share the primary debate stage with them. But the long shot candidacies may at least force the so-called legitimates to face issues they might otherwise be able to finesse.

Mr. Kucinich, who voted against President Bush's war resolution last fall, predictably will hold their feet to the fire on the war against Iraq, for awhile anyway. All four supported Mr. Bush's resolution, but Mr. Kerry seems to want to have it both ways, accusing the president of a "rush to war."

For a party clearly in search of new leadership, it won't hurt to have somebody like blue-collar liberal Kucinich elbowing his way into the debate as an unabashed "FDR Democrat" at a time when the party seems rudderless and purposeless amid foreign policy crisis and domestic economic malaise.

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

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