With the presumptive frontrunners for the Democratic presidential nomination knee deep in raising funds, seeking endorsements and issuing policy papers, former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.) admits she is still only dipping her toes into the presidential waters.
“We started off building this boat while we were already in the water,” Braun said in an interview. “The salient fact in all of this is that I started from scratch.”
Despite the long odds, Braun is feisty enough to point out that in many polls she’s leading Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), who had a major head start.
“I am beating him all over the country with 1 percent of his money,” Braun said.
Polling at this early stage of the contest, however, is largely a function of name identification and not generally seen in the political community as a predictor of future results.
Braun freely admits that she still trails Edwards and the rest of her eight opponents badly in finance and organization. But she quickly notes that “I have always had to run unconventional campaigns,” in a career that saw her rise from the state Legislature to the U.S. Senate in just 14 years.
The motives behind Braun’s campaign seem split between her vision for “rebuilding America” and a desire to clear her name in regards to allegations of campaign finance irregularities that dogged her in the Senate and contributed to her defeat in 1998.
Regardless of the reasoning behind her campaign, Braun is clearly the longest of long shots in a presidential field that includes Edwards and Sens. Bob Graham (Fla.), John Kerry (Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (Conn.); as well as Reps. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) and Dennis Kucinich (Ohio). Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and the Rev. Al Sharpton are also running.
In contrast to many of her colleagues who had been laying the groundwork for a national run for several years, Braun said she entered the race when she did to ensure a speaking slot at February’s meeting of the Democratic National Committee.
After traveling to Washington to discuss her potential presidential candidacy with DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe, Braun was told that unless she was a declared candidate she could not speak.
“I did not have the luxury of missing that opportunity,” said Braun, who had spent the past several years in New Zealand as U.S. ambassador. She quickly announced an exploratory campaign Feb. 20.
Braun maintains that she has been “getting around extensively” despite criticism that it has been a campaign in name only.
She attributes the misunderstanding to her initial dearth of staff, which did not allow the campaign to “share calendars” with the press.
“I am still trying to put the structure together from whole cloth,” she said.
Braun notes that she has been in Iowa, South Carolina, New York, Texas, Florida and Michigan in recent weeks to promote her candidacy.
“Between the traveling and trying to get the public face of the campaign up and running, I am fundraising,” Braun added.
That aspect of her campaign perhaps best illustrates the enormity of the challenge she faces to win the nomination.
Braun raised $72,000 over the first three months of the year with $45,000 left to spend. Only she and Kucinich ($180,000 raised) brought in under $1 million from Jan. 1 to March 31.
Her total was dwarfed by the more than $7 million that Edwards and Kerry each raised over the same time frame.
Braun’s approach to fundraising — as well as much of her campaign strategy — is centered on electoral lessons she took from her 1992 and 1998 Senate campaigns.
In 1998, Braun notes, she was outspent by $10 million by Peter Fitzgerald (R) and still lost the race by only 3 points.
In 1992, as Cook County recorder of deeds, she took on then-Sen. Alan Dixon and attorney Al Hofeld in a three-way Democratic primary and won with 38 percent of the vote. She went on to win a convincing general election victory and become the first black woman to ever serve in the Senate.
Braun argued that “Illinois is a microcosm of this country” so her success in 1992 and near-miss in 1998 have the potential to translate nationally.
“If you look at the constituencies that responded to me and that I represented in the Senate, if I can get that same kind of mix going nationally I believe I can win this nomination,” she added. “This campaign in a funny way, though it’s on a larger scale, is no different than those.”
One element of her past campaigns that Braun is clearly looking to address this time, perhaps in an attempt to rejuvenate her damaged image, is lingering controversy surrounding the financing of her 1992 race.
Following her victory, Braun had to immediately fend off charges that she and her then-fiance traveled to Africa using funds drawn from her campaign account; she also had to answer for an unauthorized trip to Nigeria during the reign of dictator Sani Abacha.
Braun refers to the swirl of problems as “the nasties” and provided a packet of information detailing her defense. She said that a full audit of her campaign committee by the Federal Election Commission turned up just $300 in unaccounted funds.
As for the trip to Nigeria, Braun said she went to the country to attend the funeral of Abacha’s son, whom she had met years earlier. She paid for the trip out of her own pocket but did not check with the State Department before traveling to the country.
Fitzgerald attacked her repeatedly on the issue during the campaign, once alleging that Braun had “been to Nigeria more times than she’s been to Rockford” in a major city in her home state.
Braun said that as a result of her experiences in the 1998 campaign she learned that “if you can’t communicate and get your message out then it’s the tree falling in the forest.”
Asked why she chose to run for president rather than to try to reclaim her old seat, which Fitzgerald is vacating, Braun was philosophical.
“It was a natural progression for me,” she said. A presidential bid “represented going forward rather than going back.”
“In politics, like in life, you can’t go back,” she added.