Democratic party officials devised this year’s compressed primary schedule to avoid a protracted, money-draining nomination fight.
With John Kerry coasting toward the nomination with two big victories in the South on Tuesday, party leaders and top Democratic strategists suggested the process is working pretty much as intended. But they’re also anxious that the primary season not go on too much longer.
They’d generally like to see the field narrow significantly after Tuesday’s primaries in Virginia and Tennessee, so the real contest — the one against President Bush — can begin. Kerry scored a lopsided victory in Virginia and sought a back-to-back victory in Tennessee as well in an effort to vanquish the two Southerners in the race.
“So far this primary season has been a blessing” for Democrats, said New Mexico’s Democratic governor, Bill Richardson. It has raised Americans’ interests in the Democratic contests and has allowed the candidates’ unobstructed — and until recently unanswered — shots at Bush, Richardson said.
Still, Richardson said, “My hope is that the winnowing process begins right after tonight.”
Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe earlier this year said that any candidate who had not won a primary or caucus by Feb. 3 — a week ago — should consider dropping out.
Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and former Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun complied.
Til the bitter end
But former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, once considered the front-runner; Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton have remained in the contest despite being winless — and have indicated that they intend to push on regardless of how well they do in upcoming primaries.
Kerry victories in Tennessee and Virginia — establishing his ability to win in the South — would bring enormous pressure to bear on the race’s two Southerners, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and retired Gen. Wesley Clark of Arkansas, to drop out, as well as on Dean.
Edwards and Clark had each won one primary — Edwards in South Carolina, Clark in Oklahoma.
“I think it is obvious...as to what the handwriting on the wall is,” said Leon Panetta, who served 16 years in Congress before serving as budget director and chief of staff in the Clinton White House.
“At some point, perhaps sooner rather than later, I think Democrats need to unify behind John Kerry and refocus on winning in November,” said Panetta, who is not affiliated with any candidate.
Problems for party in prolonged battle
An extended primary process could pose problems for the party in positioning itself to begin battling Bush, whose resources are enormous and basically unspent. He has raised close to $150 million to spend before the GOP convention in September, and was headed toward a total of between $170 million and $200 million.
The cost of campaigning now is depleting the resources of the candidate who will be the nominee, presumably Kerry. Furthermore, history shows that bitter primary struggles often lead to November defeats.
“We can’t be having a primary fight going on all the way through the spring,” McAuliffe said earlier this week.
Some Democratic strategists suggest that the time for the party to rally behind a single candidate is fast approaching, since polls show the president’s support is slipping and some surveys put Kerry ahead of him in a general election matchup.
There is also a risk that if the contest turns more personal, that could provide more ammunition for Republicans in the fall to use against Kerry.
Dean has been the most critical of Kerry, attacking his 19-year Senate record, his vote to authorize the Iraq war, accusing him of taking special interest money and calling him “somebody that (voters) don’t know that much about.”
But Clark and Edwards have been more muted in their criticism. Clark has contrasted himself, the “outsider,” with Kerry as the “insider.” And Edwards has criticized Kerry for taking contributions from lobbyists.
Doug Schoen, Bill Clinton’s former pollster and an unaffiliated Democratic strategist, said that prolonging the primary battle could theoretically work against Democrats in the fall. But, in practical terms, he said, “Kerry is getting such support across all demographic groups, I don’t see Dean or Clark or Edwards as posing a serious threat to democratic unity.”
Nomination before March 7?
He predicted that Kerry would wind up “with more than 90 percent of all Democrats supporting him” and would have the nomination locked up well before March 7, the day Al Gore passed that milepost in 2000.
One senior Democratic party official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, suggested that Dean had already marginalized himself by pressing ahead despite his string of losses. Otherwise, the official said, there seemed to be no harm in letting the race play out at least until next week’s Wisconsin primary before tightening the screws on laggards.
Joe Lockhart, a Democratic consultant who was Clinton’s press secretary, said he senses both a desire to wrap things up and “an appetite within the party and the press to see a one-on-one matchup with the front-runner.”
“I think it’s good for the party, good for Kerry, to keep this race competitive for just a little longer,” Lockhart said.