Wednesday, July 2, 2003

POLITICS

The stateÕs presidential primary could end up making a difference for 2004.

Posted By on Wed, Jul 2, 2003 at 4:00 AM

TENNESSEE'S GOT GAME NASHVILLE -- Events of the last several days have greatly improved the outlook -- at least in Tennessee -- for two of the Democratic contenders vying for the right to challenge President Bush in next year’s presidential election. Those two are Florida senator Bob Graham, who was in Nashville Saturday night to deliver the keynote address at Tennessee Democrats’ annual Jackson Day dinner; and ex-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, whose recent rise in the polls has been accompanied by a surprisingly strong fund-raising surge. The state’s two leading Democratic spokesman -- party chairman Randy Button and Democratic state executive director Jim Hester -- agreed after Graham’s generally well-received address on a pecking order of viables that would rank the Floridian with four other “top tier” names: Massachusetts Senator John Kerry; North Carolina Senator John Edwards; Missouri congressman Dick Gephardt; and Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman. Missing from this provisional list of viables was Dean -- but Hester hedged with an important proviso that ended up, as of Monday, being eminently invokeable. “His viability depends on whether he can get a grass-roots movement going, and what his receipts are for the quarter just ending,” had said Hester. “Grass roots” can be defined any of several different ways. If it means neighborhood meetings, like an earnest but spottily attended and somewhat raggedy one which occurred in Memphis recently, Dean’outlook in Tennessee might be seen as marginal; if, however, it means bottom-line responses like last week’s MoveOn.org internet poll that supposedly vaulted him to the top of the pack among the kinds of yellow dog Democrats who respond to such things, Dean has been doing very well indeed. And, speaking of bottom lines, Dean’s 2nd quarter fund-raising of $6 million is right up there with any of his better-known rivals’ best showings during a financial-disclosure period. At that rate, Dean could be a match for anybody save Tim Russert, the host of NBC’s Meet the Press, who skewered Dean Sunday before last with prosecutorial zeal on questions relating to Dean’s positions and met several of his answers with unmasked scorn. The general consensus was that Russert had gone -- in almost the World-War-I sense of the term -- over the top, but organization Democrats, especially in southern states like Tennessee, are made nervous by such facts, all probed by Russert, as Dean’s 1-Y draft status during Vietnam, his unfamiliarity with current enlistment numbers in the armed services, and his legal recognition, while governor, of civil unions involving gays and lesbians. In the game of political scrabble, the word they’re looking to complete is “govern,” not “McGovern.” Still, Dean has summoned up some real hot-bloodedness, both in himself and in a growing number of supporters from what he calls the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” -- that wing which is less interested in coming to terms with the positions of the current president of the United States than in coming to grips with them, and with him. Seen in that light, the previously unheralded Graham acquires a new luster -- one that he reflected, however modestly, Saturday night. Though he came off as somewhat stiff, even staid, even a bit stuffy (and probably every other “st --” modifier one could think off), Graham was no pussy-footer on such key positions as George W. Bush’s tax cuts -- “catastrophic,” he called them -- and the late war with Iraq, which Graham noted that he had voted against on the solidly patriotic -- and highly arguable -- grounds that it was a red herring undermining the War Against Terror. Though, on the evidence of his speech Saturday night, Graham is not an exciting presence, his manner of being stolid (yet another “st-” word) is in line both with his party’s past traditions and with its present need to pose a difference. He is also, as he reminded the audience, undefeated in several elections in the state of Florida, and, as everybody surely remembers, that Republican-leaning state is where the last Democratic presidential nominee, fairly or not, met his Waterloo. Aside from all else, Graham is on everybody’s list for vice president -- the hangover from that fateful 2000 Florida countdown being one good reason. Moreover, Graham has managed, as Button noted, to recruit a Tennessee staff containing several veterans of past political combat in the state. So have the other contenders in his and and Hester’s basic list of five. The outcome in Tennessee could be close -- and complicated by the apparent rise of Dean. Button, Hester, and other Democratic cadres in the state can barely conceal their excitement at the prospect that Tennessee, which moved its presidential primary up to February 10th, in the immediate wake of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, could play a decisive role in determining the Democratic nominee. One fly in the ointment: South Carolina, which has subsequently moved its presidential-preference event to February 3rd, just after New Hampshire, giving it a chance to become the barometric Southern state instead of Tennessee. Button and Hester both express concern, but each has an answer to the worry. Button says, “For one thing, for them to have a primary would cost $3 million, and South Carolina can’t afford that. Nor would a caucus be nearly as significant.” Hester concurs, and adds, “South Carolina’s a Republican state, not like Tennessee, which has always been evenly divided. People will be watching the results in Tennessee a lot closer.” Maybe so In any case, key Democrats in the Volunteer State are convinced that Tennessee’s got game -- unless the Palmetto state manages somehow to muck things up.

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