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Will ’04 Dreams Trump Message?

With half a dozen Senate Democrats expressing serious interest in the 2004 presidential nomination, many party insiders fear personal ambitions may dilute the effectiveness of the Democratic message.

“This has got to be one of Senator Daschle’s worst nightmares,” a senior Senate Democratic aide said of Minority Leader Thomas Daschle’s (D-S.D.) likely struggle to keep Democrats working from the same playbook for the next two years. “He is going to have all these presidential wannabes constantly trying to one-up each other at the expense of the larger Democratic Caucus message.”

In particular, Democrats are carefully watching the legislative proposals each candidate proffers to solve key domestic and foreign policy issues in an effort to differentiate themselves from the other presidential aspirants.

“Inevitably, there will be an effort to distinguish themselves from each other,” said Sen. John Breaux (D-La.). “They can’t all run saying the same thing and offering the same thing.”

At the same time, Democrats who are not eyeing the White House want to make sure there are few cracks or fissures in the party’s core message, which must compete day-to-day with the powerful White House bully pulpit.

“I think it makes it harder to keep the Caucus together,” Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said of the competing messages his colleagues will unveil in the upcoming months. “I think the focus of the few of us is not going to be on them, it is going to be on what we are doing here [in the Senate], and they can do what they want and say what they want.”

For his part, Daschle claims that having several Senate Democrats traveling the country talking about Democratic priorities is good for the party.

“I see no down side to having those messengers and those articulators of the Democratic agenda,” Daschle said at a news conference last week. “You will hear them. They will be covered. And I think that’s good for us as well as for them.”

Democrats breathed a sigh of relief last week when Daschle took himself out of the presidential sweepstakes. There was growing concern that Daschle would not have been able to effectively perform his duties as the opposition leader at the same time he was exploring a presidential bid, several Democrats said.

“If Daschle had stepped in to mediate a dispute, there would have been an immediate cloud of speculation as to whether or not this was being done for the good of the Caucus or for the good of his presidential run,” said a top Senate Democratic aide. “It would have further complicated our ability to stay together.”

Daschle will remain the titular head of the party until a presidential nominee is picked next year. In the short term, Senate Democrats are retooling their communications operation, which failed to deliver a message that resonated with voters in the midterm elections.

In recent personnel moves, Daschle has reached out to the furthest ends of the Democratic political spectrum, picking a liberal and a conservative to join his leadership team.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) is the new chairwoman of the Steering and Coordination Committee, which is charged with helping to develop message strategy and maintaining contacts with outside groups. Conservative Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), meanwhile, is expected to help dispense legislative advice as a member of the newly created Leadership Executive Committee.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who as assistant floor leader plays an integral part in developing a cohesive message, said he is “realistic” about the challenges that the Caucus faces with several members considering a presidential race.

“I think that each of these candidates will put together the message that represents their values and they believe will be effective,” Durbin said. “The message of [Sen.] John Edwards [D-N.C.] may be different than the message of [Sen.] Joe Lieberman [D-Conn.].

“I think it is naive to believe they are going to wait for signals from the Democratic Caucus for that message,” he added.

Edwards acknowledged that each presidential candidate will try to drive his own proposals, but he said the intended results will be the same.

“I think there will be idea differences and there will be substantive differences between us, but I think compared to [President] Bush, those issues will be much more similar than different,” said Edwards, who is actively exploring a White House bid.

“I think on the majority of issues there will be a center of gravity of Democratic support,” said Sen. Bob Graham (Fla.), who is mulling joining the growing list of Democrats considering a presidential run.

Other Democrats eyeing or examining a race for the presidential nomination include Sen. Joseph Biden (Del.), Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.), former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.), Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) and Rev. Al Sharpton.

Republicans, meanwhile, are closely watching what develops across the aisle and predict internal Democratic turmoil will benefit the GOP in the 2004 elections.

“They are going to have some very stormy seas over the next two years,” predicted a senior Senate Republican aide.

Sen. George Allen (Va.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said he would be paying particular attention to two of those Democrats, Edwards and Graham, because both Senators are up for re-election in 2004.

“It will be interesting to see their decisions,” Allen said. “Are their decisions going to be for the benefit of their own campaign or the benefit of the people of their state and America?

“We will be watching every vote they take.”

Still, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said he does not anticipate any problems keeping Democrats reading from the same script in the short term, but noted this might change when a nominee is chosen.

“In many ways it is easier to keep a unified message in the Caucus where there is half a dozen guys running,” Leahy said. “When you are down to one, it might be more difficult.”

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