Having the wisdom and courage to run scared

August 01, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

NEAR THE end of their quadrennial pep rally, Maryland Democrats got a stern warning from their newest congressman, C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger:

Don't underestimate the skill and determination of the Republicans. They're disciplined. They're focused. They've got a lot to lose. You may feel like the major issues are breaking your way, he said, but don't think you're not in for a fight.

Earlier in the week, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and just about every other Democratic lawmaker delivered a version of the same caution.

Against what? Overconfidence?

Was that the most amazing and unexpected message of this year's Democratic convention? How could Democrats need such a warning? Republicans have been outmaneuvering them for some time, and they are facing a determined incumbent president in George W. Bush.

On the subject of surprises, party unity was a close second to overconfidence. The two surprises are related. Democrats may have taken their leave of Boston believing that victory is certain now that they're all singing from same hymnal. It's important, but it's not enough.

University of Maryland, Baltimore County political scientist Thomas F. Schaller says the best evidence of the unity phenomenon was the reaction to the naming of Sen. John Edwards as the party's vice presidential candidate. No one objected. Was this really the Democratic Party of Will Rogers, the one that has proudly worshipped at the altar of disunity?

Apparently so.

Del. Maggie L. McIntosh of Baltimore, who literally walked herself lame in the election of 2002, says Democrats know they will need a major effort to win this fall. But she believes an immutable dynamic of politics may be working in her party's favor: In elections and in political careers, the work of victory is almost always done over the long haul.

Senator Kerry, she says, has compiled a record that may now yield a growing chorus of affirmation from the voters. A worthy career - a winning campaign - cannot be cobbled together in the days remaining in Campaign 2004. The pieces are in place or they aren't. It's still critical to work hard for the undecided voter, but if the candidate is not worthy, if there are deep fissures in the candidate's profile, the work will be wasted.

Conversely, if the opponent is gravely wounded, he cannot recover overnight no matter how committed are his partisans. Rep. Albert R. Wynn believes President Bush has irretrievably squandered his likeability. It's not missteps in Iraq, he says. It's the loss of credibility inflicted on him by Iraq. People are saying the president and his men lied about the threat in Iraq. Cab drivers, campaign buttons and convention speakers tried to make it a truism of this campaign.

You hear it in pockets of conservative, rural West Virginia, where Democrats were, in other years, wasting their time. Dan Rupli, a Maryland convention delegate, has been working for months in the Mountaineer State - and is little short of awe-struck by the anti-Bush response. He is among those, like Congressman Wynn, who believe John Kerry will win. Their optimism flows from the impassioned opposition to the war from West Virginia's defender of the U.S. Constitution, Sen. Robert C. Byrd. Mr. Byrd could lead West Virginia into the Democratic camp, an event that, in 2000, would have changed the outcome.

Former Democratic committeeman and Clinton administration adviser Lanny Davis says he does not "feel" a Democratic win at this point. But he thinks President Bush faces so many damaging body blows that Mr. Kerry might prevail by staying in neutral, avoiding mistakes.

Delegate McIntosh, somewhat closer to voters than Mr. Davis, doesn't think that approach will be nearly enough. People want to know what a candidate stands for, where he might take the country.

How would he extricate the United States from Iraq? How could he get a handle on medical care costs? How could he really keep jobs in this country? It's fine to promise, but people will want concrete answers.

Delegate McIntosh says voters may think John Kerry will be a more seasoned, more thoughtful leader. But, asked if Mr. Kerry would make them safer, one pro-Kerry voter, questioned on television last week, paused.

Between now and Election Day, Ms. McIntosh said, John Kerry's campaign has to erase the pause. Voters have to answer affirmatively without a pause. It's not something the candidate or his party can count on.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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