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Talking to the next president

The pleasant thing about this stage of the 2008 campaign is how easy it is to get a word with the next president. Is it Arizona Sen. John McCain, who hopped in the subway car with me Monday as I was riding from the Capitol building to the Russell Senate Office Building?
US Senator Frist watches during news conference after Roberts was confirmed on Capitol Hill in Washington
Potential candidates for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, right, and Sen. Sam Brownback, left, with Sen. Jeff Sessions standing between them.Larry Downing / Reuters
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I’ve just been talking to the next president. If only I knew who it was.

He or she is probably right here in the nation’s capitol, mingling with reporters and hiding in plain sight.

The pleasant thing about this stage of the 2008 campaign is how easy it is to get a word with the next president. Is it Arizona Sen. John McCain, who hopped in the subway car with me Monday as I was riding from the Capitol building to the Russell Senate Office building?

As casually as you might mention going to the beach, McCain asked how I was doing and said, “We’re taking up the defense authorization bill next week.”

Or is the next president Wisconsin’s Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold? Feingold seems happy to talk at any time about Supreme Court nominees or citizens’ rights to privacy under the USA Patriot Act.

Or is the next president a dark-horse Republican, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who spoke at the National Press Club last week about Americans’ poor diet and lack of exercise? Afterwards, Huckabee answered questions from a couple of reporters, one of whom was Associated Press’s Ron Fournier, who covers presidential hopefuls early and late.

I asked Huckabee about the Medicaid insurance program for low-income people and about the effect on Arkansas of new residents displaced from other states by hurricane Katrina.

No crush of TV camera crews
In the perimeter around Huckabee, there was no crush of TV camera crews and sweaty frantic reporters, as there will be in Iowa and New Hampshire two years from today if he runs and begins catching fire. You could stand next to him, have a normal conversation and get a sense of the man.

Or is the next president Sen. George Allen, the ubiquitous Virginian who looks as if he’s already running all out for the Republican nomination? The tireless Allen and his equally tireless press secretary David Snepp seem locked in the “always on” mode, ready for any opportunity to do or say something newsworthy.

Allen has an easy volubility: he sounds intensely committed when he talks about confirming conservative judicial nominees, yet he does it with a Southern drawl and in laid-back style. After several interviews with him, you begin to feel as if he’s never lost sleep over any decision he has ever made.

Or will the next president be Allen’s fellow Virginian, Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat who seems very popular in a Republican state which no Democratic presidential candidate has won since Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide?

A few weeks back, Warner popped into the sandwich shop off the lobby of the office building I work in on Capitol Hill. No one gave him a second look.

As I recall, the lady behind the counter taking orders didn’t even call him “governor,” just asked him what he wanted to order. He wasn’t a potential president of the United States, he was just another guy in a gray suit, in a hurry, like dozens of other guys in gray suits on Capitol Hill.

Frist heading to Iowa
Or is it Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader who answers questions from reporters almost every day on every topic under the sun? His hopes do look dampened at the moment, after news of investigations by a federal prosecutor and Securities and Exchange Commission of his sale of HCA stock from his semi-blind trust, shortly before the stock lost 15 percent of its value.

But Frist is headed to Iowa in three weeks to make a major speech in the state that kicks off the presidential caucus and primary season in 2008.

Or perhaps the next president is another Republican, dark horse Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas? Brownback’s perch on the Judiciary Committee has given him high visibility in the John Roberts confirmation and will do so in the colossal nomination battle to come. He’s ever accessible, ever willing to supply a quote, giving the view of the social conservatives in his party.

Any of them can dream — it’s a wide open field. For the first time since the 1952 election, no incumbent president or heir apparent vice president is seeking the White House.

Unlike 1952, when Gen. Dwight Eisenhower fascinated voters, there’s no war hero with an enormous advantage at winning either party’s nomination.

Remove the Eisenhower factor and you’d have to go back to 1920 to find a race resembling the one we’ll have in 2008.

Parallel to 1920
In 1920, a strong-willed president with a vision of remaking the world as a universal democracy ended his second term in utter frustration. He was succeeded in the White House by a senator of the opposing party who won by a landslide.

The 2008 race on the Republican side is wide open.

On the Democratic side, many consider New York Sen. Hillary Clinton to be the front runner but as another Northeastern liberal she would face the same uphill battle John Kerry did last year and Michael Dukakis did in 1988: the task of breaking GOP dominance in the “L” — the states that run south from Montana and North Dakota all the way down to the Rio Grande and then east from Texas to the Carolinas and Virginia.

From 1980 until 2004, the only Democrat to win any of the “L” was Bill Clinton.

Democrats are considering other options such as New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who might be more competitive in the Southwest and Rocky Mountain states than Hillary Clinton. And Howard Dean may run again, adding a dose of volatility.

Around Sen. Clinton, unlike the other 2008 possible contenders, there is a kind of force field, a sense that you really might be talking to the next president.

Much more so than with other 2008 hopefuls, a feeling radiates from her that her every word is chosen with painstaking care.

On occasion, perhaps when she’s tired of being painstaking, she mimes instead of speaking. Last week when reporters asked how she would vote on the Roberts nomination, she performed an elaborate silent routine with exaggerated shoulder shrugs, a comic grin, and arched eyebrows as she got on a Senate elevator.

But even Sen. Clinton does take questions from reporters as she strolls off the Senate floor, just as the other 99 do. A reporter can walk up to her, as I did, and ask her if federal outlays on Hurricane Katrina marked the beginning of a new era of domestic spending. Or if you’re a reporter from New York, you can ask her about organic dairy farming in upstate New York. 

The next several months are your chance. By this time next year, this casual mood will be over and the frantic phase will have begun.