Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), trading on star power, the capacity to raise tens of millions of dollars with relative ease and an ability to dominate media attention, are rewriting the script of the 2008 Democratic presidential campaign, driving potential rivals to the sidelines and casting a huge shadow over all others who may run.
What once shaped up as a sizable field of Democratic candidates is now shrinking. Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.) announced on Dec. 16 that he would not seek the Democratic nomination, a surprising decision that came just days after he witnessed firsthand the megawatt voltage of Obama's drawing power in New Hampshire. As Bayh drew small crowds on his seventh trip to the Granite State, Obama enjoyed sold-out audiences and saturation coverage on his first.
Bayh became the third Democrat to quit the race before Clinton or Obama have taken formal steps to enter. Former Virginia governor Mark R. Warner and Sen. Russell Feingold (Wis.) abandoned their bids after lengthy periods of exploration. All chose not to run for their own reasons, but Obama's sudden emergence creates a significant obstacle to those hoping to become the alternative to front-runner Clinton in the Democratic nomination contest.
"Simply put, it's the Obama factor," said Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart. "Obama's entry into the presidential race essentially raised the ante. Candidates who used to do careful exploration with the hope that they could catch fire in Iowa and New Hampshire and move from there recognize that there's no oxygen left out there for their candidacies."
Republicans have their own celebrity candidates in Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, but they cast a far smaller shadow on their rivals. Those so far sidelined in the GOP race -- Sens. Bill Frist (Tenn.) and George Allen (Va.) -- have landed there through their own mistakes, not the looming presence of the two early poll leaders.
Dominating candidates are not new to presidential campaigns, nor is it uncommon for some politicians to explore a candidacy but not run. In 1992, many prominent Democrats chose not to run, fearful that President George H.W. Bush could not be defeated. In 2000, George W. Bush was the clear front-runner for his party's nomination, but the Texas governor still drew a large field of rivals. The winnowing did not begin until late summer of 1999 -- nine months later in the process than is happening this time.
Benefits of celebrity
Even though neither has announced for president, Clinton and Obama have demonstrated the benefits of celebrity in a world of constant cable news and expanding Internet communities. That culture serves to reinforce the advantages of celebrity, repeatedly focusing attention on the celebrities (as this story is doing) rather than paying close attention to the doggedness of dark horses -- at least until serious campaigning begins and the voters weigh in.
At this point, Clinton and Obama are eclipsing a group of Democratic heavyweights that includes the party's presidential and vice presidential nominees in 2004, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) and former senator John Edwards (N.C.), as well as several other senators and governors with impressive runs, from Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) and Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) to governors Bill Richardson (N.M.) and Tom Vilsack (Iowa).
Only former vice president Al Gore might be able to command the kind of attention Clinton and Obama receive, say veteran strategists. But he has made no serious moves toward running.
Edwards plans to launch his campaign next week, the timing dictated in part by his advisers' belief that he will get more attention during an otherwise slow news week than he might in January, when the new Congress begins and President Bush unveils his new Iraq strategy. The others are weighing when or whether to jump in.
Money is another factor that could make running more difficult for those in the shadow of Clinton and Obama. Democratic strategists say the two celebrity senators will have no trouble attracting the biggest share of the party's best fundraisers and will bring in substantial funds online. That will put virtually everyone else at a big disadvantage in what is likely to be the costliest nomination fight in Democratic history.
This will be the first campaign in which all serious candidates for the nomination will opt out of the public-financing system, say strategists in several campaigns. That means candidates will pass up federal matching funds and will not be bound by spending limits in the nomination battle or restrictions on what can be spent in each state.
That freedom to spend comes with the difficult task of raising extraordinary sums of money; the campaign could necessitate raising half a million dollars each week next year -- or easily twice that much. Some campaign teams are talking about raising $100 million by March 2008. Some see $25 million to $30 million by the end of 2007 as the minimum needed to compete seriously in the early contests, but others say $45 million or $50 million is more realistic.
"I think the money is the most daunting part of this, particularly if you are not a candidate who is going to excite the Internet world to raise money," said Steven A. Elmendorf, who was a top adviser to former representative Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) when he sought the nomination in 2004, and who later joined Kerry's general-election campaign.
Bayh advisers say money was not the determining factor in his decision. He had more than $10 million from his Senate campaign committee that he could have transferred to a presidential campaign, making his decision not to run all the more surprising.
Bayh, a textbook example
Bayh's preparations for a campaign provided a textbook example of how a lesser-known candidate lays the foundation for possible success. He began his 2008 quest just days after Kerry lost to Bush in 2004. He recruited additional advisers, prepared a detailed blueprint for fundraising and organizing by December 2004 and began running hard early in 2005.
Over the next two years, Bayh made a dozen trips to Iowa and seven to New Hampshire, two states with early nominating contests. Through his political action committee, he trained and financed young staffers to work on congressional and legislative campaigns in those and other states. He courted fundraisers and wooed the media at countless lunches and dinners. As Bayh spokesman Dan Pfeiffer put it, "It's a three-year process to get to the primaries."
After the Democratic Party's losses in 2004, Bayh saw an opening to run for the nomination by presenting himself as a Democrat who could win Republican states, such as his home state of Indiana. After the Democrats' victories last month, Bayh's advisers found that his experience as a senator and a governor and his potential in red states were less appealing to Democratic activists looking toward 2008.
The Bayh camp's research found that activists want a candidate who can give voice to their frustrations with Bush and the war in Iraq and who can channel it into a crusade-like campaign. Bayh's advisers concluded that made Obama and possibly Edwards more likely than the Indiana senator to become alternatives to Clinton.
A different conclusion
Vilsack came to a different conclusion -- that there may still be room for a dark horse to challenge the big names. Vilsack watched the Obama phenomenon up close in September, when the Illinois senator attended the annual steak fry hosted by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). The hoopla surrounding Obama's visit did nothing to dissuade Vilsack from becoming the first Democrat in the race.
Jeff Link, Vilsack's communications director, said the quality of candidates' ideas and the ability of candidates to pitch themselves are critical to the success of dark horses. "You have an idea of how to make the country better, and you have to believe that your idea is an idea worth fighting for and worth putting yourself through a lot to make that change, to implement those ideas and plans," he said. "That's where Tom Vilsack started."
But Link acknowledged that is only a starting point. "At some point in the process . . . you've got to put spark to gas to really take off," he said, noting that Vilsack will try to light the match on his home turf in the Iowa caucuses.
William Mayer, a political science professor at Northeastern University who has written extensively about the nominating process, said rivals of Clinton and Obama could have an especially difficult time finding an opening for their candidacies. "They are both very appealing to Democrats on a symbolic level," he said. "The Democrats would dearly love to elect the first woman or black president. Given that, it's going to be tough to run an insurgent campaign against these people."
Democratic strategist Anita Dunn cautioned against assumptions that the Democratic race is largely going to be a contest among Clinton, Obama and Edwards, who leads the polls in Iowa. "One of the reasons for elections is that you don't know at this point how things are going to play out," she said. "History teaches us that the front-runners usually win the nomination, but front-runners often stumble -- and that gives an opportunity to someone who is well positioned."