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Gephardt Could Buck History With Longer Primary Season

Should Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) succeed in becoming president in 2004, he would be the first sitting Member of the House of Representatives to jump directly to the White House since Rep. James Garfield (R-Ohio) in 1880, more than 120 years ago.

In fact, other than Garfield, he would be the only one to do so. The problem isn’t Gephardt’s alone. Senators have done little better over the years; Only two have made the direct presidential jump, Sens. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 1960 and Warren G. Harding (R-Ohio) in 1920.

For Gephardt, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio), or any of his Congressional colleagues in the 2004 Democratic field — Sens. John Edwards (N.C.), John Kerry (Mass.), Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and possibly Bob Graham (Fla.) — to make the leap, they will need to solve this riddle.

The differences between Gephardt today and Garfield in 1880 clearly outweigh their similarities, but the comparison does hold a lesson for Democrats and suggests why Capitol Hill incumbents have fared so poorly for the top job.

Garfield, like Gephardt, had been a long-time fixture in Congress. During Garfield’s 18 years in the House, he’d served as party leader, chaired the Appropriations and Banking committees, and spoke publicly on all the day’s major issues: Reconstruction, tariffs, the Grant scandals, the 1876 electoral dispute.

But Garfield in 1880 was no candidate for the White House. Republicans in 1880 were split between two early leaders: The frontrunner was Ulysses S. Grant, the Civil War hero and former president seeking a third term. Hugely popular after a round-the-world tour and backed by eastern political bosses, Grant had amassed a huge lead in delegates, controlling solid delegations from New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois chosen by state conventions in February.

Challenging Grant was James Blaine, a popular Senator from Maine and former Speaker who was dubbed the “plumed knight” for his fiery oratory and party crusades. Blaine had also built a large block of delegate support. A scattering of favorite sons and independents held the balance. Had the choice come early, in February or March, however, Grant would have won the nomination hands down.

But 19th-century Republicans had a slow process; national convention delegates were chosen over a five-month period and were not legally bound to a candidate. They could change their minds and use their judgment. By the time Republicans convened their national convention in Chicago in June that year, the public had cooled on the early leaders. Delegates deadlocked for 35 ballots, with Grant and Blaine leading the pack. Garfield, who attended as campaign manager for Ohio’s “favorite son,” Treasury Secretary John Sherman, impressed the convention by his moderate stands on a series of sharp-elbowed procedural fights. The proceedings (and Garfield’s role) mesmerized the country for days, telegraphed and plastered across newspaper headlines coast to coast. Delegates saw Garfield as a capable, reliable alternative; exhausted by the stalemate, they turned to him in a stampede on the 36th ballot — a record number of ballots for Republicans — making him a true “dark horse” winner.

In fact, the delegates had done well. Experienced politicos all, they had chosen the best possible candidate for their party that year. Serious problems had emerged with both frontrunners: Grant’s connection with scandals from his presidential years and growing public distaste for a third term, and Blaine’s involvement in dubious railroad deals and his bitter rivalry with New York’s boss, Sen. Roscoe Conkling (R). Garfield was uniquely positioned to unite his party and present a fresh image; he defeated a strong challenge from Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock, the popular Civil War general backed by a solid South and New York’s Tammany Hall. Garfield won the presidency by fewer than 10,000 votes, the closest popular vote margin in American history up to that time.

Were it not for the long Republican nomination process, Garfield never could have been nominated nor elected. The process allowed delegates time to reflect, consider new information and pick the best candidate while capturing the public’s attention in their candidate by the pure drama of the horse race. In 1880, more than 79 percent of eligible voters went to the polls, almost twice the typical participation in recent presidential elections — though lingering tensions from the nomination fight would spill over into Garfield’s term and cause him to be shot in the back by an assassin four months into his presidency.

By contrast, the 2004 nominating process seems designed deliberately to be short, allowing a strong frontrunner to lock things up early after an intense, front-loaded primary season. By March or April, it may all be over — no more drama, no chance to reconsider. The 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, if it follows recent trends, will be highly scripted and uneventful — public interest will have dissipated. Neither party has taken more than one ballot to pick a presidential candidate since 1952, when Democrats needed three for Adlai Stevenson. Missing will be the tension that can draw voters to learn about the candidates, their character and their stands.

History shows that Senators and House Members, linked to narrow “inside the Beltway” interests, particularly need this extra platform. Kennedy, the last Senator to win the White House, greatly strengthened his profile in 1960 by several key actions during that year’s long nominating season: addressing concerns about his Catholicism during the primaries, defeating Sen. Hubert Humphrey in key state contests, and choosing rival Lyndon Johnson for the vice presidency in Los Angeles, all giving voters an intriguing window on his judgment and personality.

Other presidential hopefuls have benefited from public interest prompted by long nominating deadlocks: Democrats took 46 ballots to choose Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and four ballots to pick Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932; Republicans cast 10 to nominate Harding in 1920 and three to pick even Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Each was an underdog before the convention and emerged with an aura of success that carried them through the campaign. Long conventions, of course, hardly guarantee victory: Democrat John W. Davis, nominated after 103 ballots in New York City in 1924, the longest nominating process ever, lost in a landslide that year to Calvin Coolidge.

Parties today seem to cringe at the notion of a wide-open nomination race. They fear both the financial burden of keeping multiple campaigns active during a protracted contest as well as the risk of candidates savaging each other along the way with negative campaigns and personal attacks, weakening the ultimate nominee for November. But for Democrats in 2004, whose candidate must face a sitting president with currently high poll ratings, possibly in wartime, the risks may be worth it. A long horse race unfolding over many months, perhaps leading to a contested convention, could draw wide public interest to the candidates, provide them a platform to prove their mettle, and allow party delegates to exercise sound judgment in choosing the best nominee.

For Gephardt or any of his Senate colleagues to follow Congressman Garfield to the White House, the Democratic nomination may be worth more if it follows a long, vigorous contest than if it’s locked up early and the convention is reduced to an emotionless infomercial.

Kenneth D. Ackerman practices law at Olsson, Frank and Weeda, P.C., and has served as senior counsel to the Senate Governmental Affairs (1975-1981) and Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry (1988-1993) committees. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield.”

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