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What kind of battle for Democrats in 2008?

Will the Democratic contest resemble the one eight years ago when Al Gore and Bill Bradley had to magnify minor differences between them in order to generate heat? Or will it look like 1968, a referendum on the party's future?
Hillary Clinton Attends Equal Pay Rally At Capitol
Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., shakes hands with people attending an equal-pay-for-women rally on the West Lawn of the Capitol on Tuesday. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
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Will the 2008 Democratic presidential contest resemble the one eight years ago when Al Gore and Bill Bradley had to magnify relatively minor differences between them in order to generate some heat?

Or will it look like the spectacular contest in 1968, a grand referendum on the future of the Democratic Party?

Thursday night’s debate among eight Democratic contenders will provide clues on the nature of the contest; in a crowded field, it will be hard to get viewers to remember the pungent phrase or stinging challenge by one rival to another.

In 1968, at a time of war like today, the anti-Vietnam War candidates, Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy and George McGovern, backed by a generation of young activists, challenged first President Lyndon Johnson, forcing him out of the race, and then Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

It was a dramatic clash of old vs. new. Old won, as Humphrey got the nomination.

Referendum on Clintons
Due to Sen. Hillary Clinton’s prominence and her husband’s claims on the affections of Democrats, inevitably the 2008 contest will be something of a referendum on Bill and Hillary Clinton.

There have been famously political first ladies in the past, such as Eleanor Roosevelt. But history offers no precedents for how voters react to the wife of a former president running for his old job. Bill Clinton is a more naturally gifted campaigner than his wife, so it will be interesting to see how much the Clinton campaign uses his talents.

"He has been extremely popular with Democrats and even has some appeal to moderate Republicans. He has an inherently likeable personality, but popularity is not transferable," said Republican consultant Scott Howell. "You either like her, or you don't like her."

Campaigns are about issues as well as personalities. And this year, on many issues the Democratic contenders do largely agree: for instance, all four Democratic senators who are running for the nomination, Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama, Sen. Chris Dodd, and Sen. Joe Biden, voted against confirming Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Supreme Court nominees Samuel Alito and John Roberts. All four voted to try to block confirmation of Alito by filibustering his nomination.

When John Edwards served in the Senate in 2003, he joined Clinton, Biden, and Dodd in voting to filibuster the nominations of President Bush’s conservative appeals court nominees such as Miguel Estrada.

Small differences?
A primary campaign such as 2000 in which the contenders don’t widely diverge on many issues is likely to end up being acrid and personal, as 2000 was.

Accusing Gore of running misleading ads about him, Bradley asked his rival during a debate before the New Hampshire primary, “Why should we believe you will tell the truth as president, if you don’t tell the truth as a candidate?”

Bradley likened Gore to Richard Nixon. “When Al accuses me of negative campaigning, it reminds me of the story about Richard Nixon … [he] was the kind of politician who would chop down a tree and then stand on the stump and give a speech about conservation.” In return, Gore accused Bradley of trying to “manufacture a distinction” about their stands on abortion.

Bradley’s strategy didn’t work: he lost the New Hampshire primary, essentially ending his bid for the nomination.

This year, many analysts see Iraq as the deciding factor in the Democratic contest.

“Candidates debate issues, but they clash on war,” said Jano Cabrera, a Democratic strategist. “While 2008 won’t be a repeat of 1968 — when the nation was torn not just by Vietnam but by a variety of social changes, most prominently the civil rights struggle – the debates this cycle hold the potential to be sharper than any we’ve seen in recent years.”

How they handle the Iraq question
Cabrera, who worked for Sen. Joe Lieberman’s presidential campaign in 2004 and who isn’t currently supporting any of the contenders, added, “With a strong anti-war sentiment among Democratic primary voters, in particular in Iowa, there’s a real incentive among the field to control the debate on Iraq."

Cabrera said, "Obama would prefer for it to center on who supported the war initially and who didn’t, a framing that leaves him standing alone. Edwards would rather highlight that he has renounced his war vote, a contrast that helps him against Sen. Clinton. And Clinton would rather talk about what the nation must do next on Iraq, and underscore that on that issue there’s a nary a difference between the field.”

As implied in Cabrera’s assessment, it will difficult for the less-famous contenders such as Dodd and Biden to break into news media and polling prominence.

Biden will continually point to his detailed plan for division of Iraq into three largely autonomous regions, Shiite, Sunni and Kurd, "with a strong but limited central government in Baghdad."

And he'll press his rivals on why they do not offer similarly detailed proposals for the future of the country.

Populism versus the Establishment?
Democratic strategist David Sirota, said, “I do think this debate is a grand referendum on the future of the party. In no uncertain terms, it will decide whether the Democratic Party stands for cults of personality and elite Big Money donors, or for working-class Americans.”

Sirota, who has warm praise for Edwards, said, “The candidates present very different agendas and very different campaigns. The main event, of course, will be between Clinton, Obama and Edwards, but while there are three of them, this is really a binary division. Clinton and Obama pretty much represent Establishment Washington. Their campaigns are staffed by insiders (many former Clintonites), their economic agendas are being shaped by Big Business, and their financial bases on Wall Street are essentially the same.”

He added, “Edwards, by contrast, is running a populist outsider campaign.... Edwards has staked his campaign on core issues of economic class. In the process, he is forcing a debate on trade and globalization that Clinton, Obama and Wall Street in general do not want to have, but which more and more Americans realize are central to this country's economic future.”

If contests of the past are any guide, the television ad war this fall and winter will often focus on past roll call votes, with rivals challenging each other on why they voted as they did: if Edwards, for instance, makes opposition to globalization and free trade the theme of his campaign, his rivals’ ads may well ask, “Why did you vote for the 2000 PNTR trade deal with China, the country with which the United States has its biggest trade deficit?”

As in the 1968 contest, American soldiers and Marines will still be on the battlefield as Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats cast the first votes of the year next January. Iraq and the consequences of withdrawal may well overshadow China, trade and all other issues.

The view from a centrist
Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., a centrist who is neutral in the presidential fray and who must run on the same ticket with the Democratic presidential nominee next year in a state Bush carried twice, said Tuesday, “Iraq will be a huge issue throughout the 2008 cycle. This president has made it clear he’s not getting out of Iraq. It’ll be up the next president to do it.”

But Pryor said it is too early to tell exactly how Iraq will define the Democratic contest, but the whole Persian Gulf region is at stake.

“I don’t know if it really becomes ‘who has the best plan to get us out?’ or more of a ‘how do we stabilize the whole region and Iraq is big part of that?’ to ‘Iran is trying to go nuclear.’ I don’t know how it plays out,” Pryor said. “Some of that depends on the circumstances on the ground in Iraq.”

So whatever answers you may hear Thursday night from the Democratic contenders, they are likely to need to address a different and perhaps far worse regional picture six or eight months from now.