Harkin: Candidate Who ‘Connects’ Wins

Posted June 6, 2003 at 5:43pm

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) believes the next presidential nominee from his party will not be the most “electable” candidate or the person who best represents the “Democratic” wing of the Democratic Party. Instead, Harkin says, the individual who has the “intangible” quality of “connectedness” that characterized former Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan will carry the day.

“All of this talk about ‘I am more electable’ or ‘I want to get back to the roots,’ I am a little worried about that,” Harkin, who has established himself as a key broker in the primary process, said in a recent interview. “I think they are all electable if they are able to connect with people and if they can explain in a clear and effective way where they want to take the country.”

Harkin, who sought his party’s presidential nomination in the 1992 cycle, hopes to promote this vision, which he believes can deliver the White House back to Democrats, in a series of forums he is hosting for the would-be presidential nominees.

“I am convinced that after my own race in Iowa and my experience here that if it was ‘the economy, stupid’ in 1991 and 1992, it is ‘the economy, stupid’ in spades this year,” Harkin, who was re-elected to a fourth term in 2002, said.

“I wanted to gear our party and our candidates to [be] focusing on the economy rather than getting bogged down in little sidebar issues,” he explained about the forums’ aims.

The “Hear it from the Heartland” meetings will be financed by a political action committee Harkin created for that very purpose — TOMPAC — and are being run by his top political aide, Jeff Link.

Despite Harkin’s professed populist leanings, he insists that he will serve as an “honest broker” in the forums, but did not rule out endorsing a candidate when the listening process concludes in September.

“Do I plan to endorse anyone? No,” Harkin said, before quickly adding: “On the other hand, I may want to endorse someone.”

As master of ceremonies for the candidate forums Harkin will have no small role in determining the nominee. He is already positioned as the most influential Democratic politician — only Gov. Tom Vilsack can claim similar heft — in perhaps the most influential state in the 2004 nominating process.

Iowa will hold the first official vote of the 2004 presidential race when residents head to the caucuses Jan. 19.

Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) took part in the first of the forums in April, an hour of question and answer from a Des Moines audience.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was in Davenport on May 18, and Sen. Bob Graham (Fla.) was scheduled to appear in Council Bluffs last Saturday.

Sens. John Kerry (Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (Conn.), Reps. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) and Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) as well as former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (Ill.) and the Rev. Al Sharpton will also participate.

Harkin refused to discuss his opinions of the individual candidates. “If I say something it colors it one way or another,” he said.

Although Harkin insists his goals in setting up and moderating the forums are entirely altruistic, his role in the process clearly establishes him as a power broker and allows him to influence the issues the candidates talk about on the campaign trail.

Chuck Larson, chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, said Harkin’s gambit in establishing the forums is “an obvious way for him to put a spotlight on the liberal agenda he embraces. It affords him an opportunity to be a kingmaker among the liberal wing of the party.”

Regardless of his motives, Harkin’s endorsement has played a critical role in the past two contested Iowa caucuses that he did not participate in as a candidate.

In 1988, he backed Gephardt, then a lower-profile national figure, and helped propel him to a surprise victory in the caucuses. Gephardt was unable to capitalize on the momentum claimed from Iowa, however, and dropped out of the race a month later, his campaign nearly broke.

In 1992, Harkin joined the presidential fray, running on a populist message, and easily captured his home state. He failed to show strong enough in New Hampshire’s primary and then after a lackluster outing in South Carolina on March 7, dropped from the race and endorsed then-Arkansas Gov. Clinton.

Harkin’s next chance to flex his political muscle came in the 2000 Democratic primary, when former Sen. Bill Bradley (N.J.) waged an insurgent challenge to then-Vice President Al Gore.

Despite Gore’s decision to write off Iowa in his first presidential campaign in 1988, Harkin enthusiastically endorsed him and campaigned extensively throughout the state on Gore’s behalf. Gore won a strong 63 percent to 35 percent victory, crushing the upstart Bradley movement before it ever got rolling.

When asked about the power his endorsement conveys, Harkin said that “endorsements aren’t worth a hoot unless you back them up.”

He added that if he does choose to get behind one of the presidential contenders before the Iowa caucus, he will hand over his extensive voter lists and contacts throughout the state. “What I would bring is my ability to reach out all across the state,” Harkin said.

Although he is concentrating most of his energy currently on the presidential race, Harkin has also begun to contemplate his role in the Senate over the next six years.

“I don’t know I am going to do a heck of a lot different than I have done in the past,” Harkin said. “I want to continue to be active in what I would call the populist, progressive thrust of the Democratic Party.”

Harkin’s voting record places him on the liberal wing of the party, a position that he has been regularly pilloried for by his Republican opponents — with little success.

“You have just got to ignore that stuff,” Harkin said when asked about being labeled a liberal. “You have to know who you are and what you stand for.”

Harkin has also clearly been affected by the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) in an airplane crash just 11 days prior to the 2002 election, though he did not directly address whether he feels an obligation to pick up the progressive flag Wellstone carried during his Senate days.

Harkin and Wellstone were close friends, and the Minnesota Senator’s death “had a profound effect on a lot of us in the Caucus,” Harkin said. “A lot of times [Paul] reminded us what the party stood for.”

Harkin rejected the idea that he aspires to a post higher than his current perch.

“Someone once asked me if I would want to be secretary of something in the administration and I said ‘Why,’” Harkin said. “I never want to give up being a Senator.”