Former Virginia Governor Warner gestures while speaking at the New Hampshire Democratic Party Convention in Goffstown, New Hampshire
Jessica Rinaldi  /  Reuters
Former Virginia governor Mark Warner makes a point during his speech to the New Hampshire Democratic Party Convention in Goffstown, N.H. last weekend.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 6/5/2006 10:46:30 AM ET 2006-06-05T14:46:30

Having given their party the back-to-back losing presidential candidacies of John Kerry and Al Gore, New Hampshire Democrats feel a singular sense of urgency to find a winner for 2008.

At the party’s state convention in Goffstown, N.H. this weekend, 800 Granite State Democratic activists sized up two potential 2008 contenders. 

Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold was the candidate of emotion and passion. Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner played the candidate of reason and of Electoral College reckoning (he’s proven he can get elected in a Republican state).

In his speech, Feingold refuted the idea — peddled to him, he said, by a fellow Democratic senator whom he didn’t name — that all that matters is for Democrats to get a majority in the Senate.

“I just have to remind everyone that the Democrats were in the majority in the United States Senate when we voted for the Iraq war and we passed the USA Patriot Act,” he said. “It’s not about just being in the majority, you have to stand for something; you have to do the right thing when you’re in the majority.”

That statement brought raucous applause, as did his call for “passing a law that guarantees health care for every single American.”

Warner warns of Iraq exit
Warner used his speech on Saturday to criticize Bush, as all Democrats do, but more thought-provoking were his views on Iraq and Iran. 

“Going out (of Iraq) without a plan is just as bad as going in without a plan,” he cautioned, drawing a line between himself and those, such as Feingold, who call for a fixed date for pulling out U.S. troops.

A few hours after Warner addressed the convention, the delegates defied the wishes of the state party leadership and passed a resolution calling for the impeachment of Bush, as well as another demanding that Congress censure him (a Feingold idea) and yet another calling for withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

The former Virginia governor seemingly had no desire to feed off the anger that the mostly anti-Bush, anti-war crowd was feeling.

He also warned the Democrats that America may have to confront Iran. “In Iran we’re dealing with the real deal: a jihadist leader with potential access to weapons of mass destruction, and state-sponsored terrorism.”

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The delegates have more than a year to mull over these two potential contenders as well as others, such as Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who’ll be flying to New Hampshire for a get-acquainted visit next week.

Listen to the activists
It’s best to discount polls with a hypothetical contest between Sen. John McCain and Sen. Hillary Clinton and instead pay heed to party activists here in New Hampshire.

They vote in the first primary of 2008, a primary that has determined the outcome of the race for the Democratic nomination since 1992 and in many quadrennial contests before that.

Bill Clinton’s survival in New Hampshire in 1992, for instance, paved the way for his nomination and victory. He finished second in the primary to Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas.

There is an air of unreality about the New Hampshire Democrats’ presidential musings at this point since Sen. Hillary Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore were not at the state party convention and have not revealed whether they’ll seek the nomination.

But there’s a ripple of interest in Gore right now among Granite Staters.

“I’d be happy” if he ran, said Garth Corriveau, a Manchester lawyer. “It boggles my mind how different the country would be if he had been elected” in 2000. “We don’t know what the field is going to look like, but he would transform the field. He’d be a heavyweight; he’d have instant credibility.”

Keep an eye on Shaheen
A man to watch closely is Bill Shaheen, who co-chaired the 1976 New Hampshire campaign for Jimmy Carter, headed Gore's Granite State primary effort in 2000, and headed the Kerry primary campaign in the state three years ago. All three men won the primary and went on to win the party’s nomination. Shaheen picks winners, or they pick him.

As he stood outside the convention hall and greeted party pals of his, Shaheen said most Democrats haven’t yet committed to a candidate. “Right after the November (mid-term) election, a lot of these people will be getting calls.”

One of those getting phone calls will be Shaheen.

Asked if he kept in touch with Gore, Shaheen said, “No. I have seen him a couple of times when he comes up to New Hampshire. I was told he’s coming up again in July to do a fund-raiser — I don’t know for who yet — and I’m sure I’ll see him then.”

'Fabulous'  Feingold
For now Feingold seems to be a hot commodity. The New Hampshire Democrats gave Feingold a more effusive response this weekend than they gave Warner.

“This is the most important thing about Russ: he doesn’t have to explain his history or his votes,” said Arnie Arnesen, a radio talk show host and a New Hampshire Democratic congressional candidate in 1996.

Arnesen said John Kerry looked indecisive due to “I voted for it, before I voted against it” statement about $82 billion in funding for the troop deployment in Iraq.

“The flip flops could be applied to almost any candidate coming out of Congress today: most of them voted for the war, most of them voted for the Patriot Act, most of them voted for things that right now, if they could rethink it, they’d probably change. Feingold exhibited leadership …he wasn’t willing to abandon the Constitution and the Bill of Rights because of 9/11.”

She summed Feingold up in one word: “fabulous.”

But some Democrats are wary of Feingold’s censure idea: “I have reservations about that,” said congressional candidate Jim Craig, who is the Minority Leader of the New Hampshire House. “I think he (Bush) deserves it, but I don’t know that it would serve Democrats well right now….I think the best way to censure him is to take back the Congress, that’s really the thing that can hurt him the most and help the country the most.”

Feingold went too far for some in the audience when he said Bush’s decision to order a National Security Agency surveillance program was “right in the strike zone of what the Founders understood the words ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ to be.”

Unlike his clarion call for mandated health care, this line got only half the crowd standing and cheering.

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