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Daschle Exit Stirs Scramble to Win ’04 ‘Talent Primary’

Sen. Thomas Daschle’s (S.D.) decision not to run for president has set off a scramble among other Democratic contenders for the allegiance of a talented corps of political operatives who were planning to work on the Senate leader’s campaign.

Daschle was set to run at least equal to the other four top contenders in the so-called “talent primary” with a team headed by former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta and former Deputy Chief of Staff Steve Richetti.

[IMGCAP(1)] Others on the prospective Daschle team would have included former White House aide Ron Klain, former Senate staffers Joel Johnson and Anita Dunn, and Steve Hildebrand, who ran then-Vice President Al Gore’s Iowa campaign in 2000.

On Tuesday, within minutes after Daschle aborted plans to announce his candidacy this weekend in South Dakota and head out for a tour of early primary states, other candidates and their top aides started making recruiting calls to the Daschle team.

Despite rumors of decisions, it’s not clear which of the other candidates will pick up members of the Daschle squad.

Some are, in effect, “interviewing” Sens. John Kerry (Mass.), John Edwards (N.C.) and Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and Rep. Dick Gephardt (Mo.) with the idea of making a choice.

Others may join the ranks of the “I’ll help whoever asks” club, which includes several former high-level Clinton administration officials, especially foreign policy aides.

The “talent primary” is a key part of the buildup toward the actual caucus and primary season now just over a year away.

Other “primaries” are under way as well. Lieberman seems to be well ahead in the “ideas primary,” having beaten his rivals with proposals on foreign and economic policy and homeland security.

A former chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, Lieberman identifies himself as “pro-business,” but his criticisms of President Bush’s economic and environmental plans have been as harsh as any liberal’s.

On the ideas front, Edwards is striving mightily to catch up to Lieberman, issuing a stream of position papers, especially criticizing Bush from the right on homeland security.

Edwards was leading in the “press primary,” having received the most glowing coverage prior to his Jan. 2 announcement of his presidential exploratory committee.

The coverage lost a bit of its glow amid Edwards’ endless repetitions that he was the “champion of regular folks” while the press called attention to his status as a millionaire former trial lawyer with limited political experience.

Still, the sheer volume of coverage — and Edwards’ quick start — seems to have boosted him in the polls to almost equal name recognition with better-known candidates like Kerry, Lieberman and Gephardt.

All of the top four contenders are expected to run about even in the all-important “money primary.” Each is expected to be able to raise between $15 million and $20 million this year.

Edwards has a powerful fundraising base among his fellow trial lawyers. Lieberman expects to raise money among fellow Jews, including many who regularly contribute to community charities but have not previously given to political candidates.

Gephardt has a natural base among the nation’s trade unions, but also has spent years raising money for House candidates, giving him a large donor list.

Kerry, Edwards and Gephardt presumably will have equal appeal among wealthy Hollywood liberals who are leery of Lieberman because of his virtues — centrism, hawkishness and gutsy criticism of violence and sex in the media.

In the “talent primary,” Gephardt and Kerry seem to have their starting teams assembled earliest. Gephardt’s includes his present and former chiefs of staff, Steve Elmendorf and Tom O’Donnell; California political consultant Bill Carrick; his 1988 Iowa campaign manager, Steve Murphy; and John Lapp, who ran Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack’s campaign last year.

Kerry has Jim Jordan, outgoing executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee; media consultant Jim Margolis; legendary field organizer Michael Whouley; and his associate Jill Alper, who helped elect Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm last year.

Edwards’ team includes Gore’s 2000 New Hampshire operative Nick Baldick, and Steve Jarding, who managed Virginia Gov. Mark Warner’s successful campaign in 2001.

Still unclear, according to Edwards’ aides, is the role of liberal “message” guru Bob Shrum. Contrary to appearances, aides say, Edwards’ claim to represent “regular folks” as opposed to “insiders” was not Shrum’s formulation, but Edwards’ own.

Lieberman has hired a pollster, Mark Penn, and Gore’s former media strategist, Carter Eskew, but has yet to sign on a campaign manager.

He is expected to get advice, too, from former White House Political Director Craig Smith and an informal “kitchen cabinet” including former Gore aide Tom Nides, DLC President Al From and former White House Communications Director Don Baer.

Of course, what counts in the end is not the talent primary or even the money primary, but the real primaries and caucuses, starting in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Daschle’s exit seemingly leaves the Iowa field open for Gephardt, also from a neighboring state, but it also raises expectations for Gephardt’s performance there.

In fact, Kerry reportedly leads in some early private polls in Iowa and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is showing traction among liberal anti-war activists.

New Hampshire is thought to be Kerry’s state, possibly with a challenge from Dean, but Lieberman plans to make a stand there by attracting independents who supported Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2000.

I accept the conventional wisdom that there is no frontrunner. But my bones tell me that Gephardt will prove the candidate closest to the Democratic Party’s center of gravity.

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