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Coming to Terms With Candidate Springer?

Democrats Have Softened Their Criticisms

With Jerry Springer’s Ohio Senate candidacy moving closer to becoming reality, Democrats in Washington, D.C., are softening their tone when it comes to the controversial TV talk-show host they have sought to marginalize in recent months.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who said earlier this year that Springer “wouldn’t be my first choice” to challenge Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) in 2004, took a different tack Tuesday when asked whether the party should be recruiting alternative candidates.

“I’ll let the party and people of Ohio decide,” Daschle said. “That’s not for any of us in Washington to decide those things. It’s a free country and people can come forth and make their case and if they make their case, you know that’s all we can ask.

“I know that there is a lot of interest in the Senate seat in Ohio and there’ll be other candidates. But I don’t want to make that judgement.”

Daschle was far less accepting of the Cincinnati mayor turned TV ringmaster in a January interview that aired on CNN’s “Inside Politics.”

“I understand he was a mayor at one point, but I think we can do a lot better than that,” Daschle told CNN’s Judy Woodruff. “And I’m sure Ohio will.”

A spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has since repeatedly echoed Daschle’s sentiments, and Springer, who is campaigning as the ultimate political outsider, has used the fact that national Democrats are not enthusiastic about his candidacy on the stump.

The Minority Leader’s latest comments are a complete reversal from 1999, when Daschle called Springer “a joke” while the talk-show host was being mentioned in Democratic circles as a possible challenger to Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio). He also vowed that Springer “will never join our Caucus.”

Meanwhile, DSCC Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.) continued to stress this week that Springer is not the party’s first choice nor does the king of trash TV have the “ideal profile” for a Senate candidate.

“He would not be my first choice if I were a voter in Ohio, based on what I know,” Corzine said. Still, he echoed Daschle in saying that ultimately the decision is up to Buckeye State Democrats.

“We’re uncomfortably observing how he runs his campaign,” Corzine said. “It’s not one that I think anyone’s going to run to embrace. … But you know really the people of Ohio will have a chance to speak at some point.”

Corzine has not met or spoken with Springer, who announced the formation of an exploratory committee and launched a campaign Web site last week. Springer has said he will decide whether to enter the race by the end of next month.

State Sen. Eric Fingerhut (D) is already seeking the Democratic nomination, and while Daschle said other candidates may emerge, the party’s bench is shallow at best and the prospect of recruiting a top-tier challenger at this point looks bleak. Republicans hold every statewide office in Ohio, and the party also controls both houses of the state Legislature.

Corzine said the primary could play a key role in persuading national Democrats to take Springer seriously if he is tested and wins.

“The Democratic primary, if he wins it, I think changes the dynamic of the thing,” Corzine said. “If he runs and establishes his credibility.”

Dale Butland, communications director for Springer’s exploratory committee, said that the change in message coming from Washington mirrors the reception Springer is beginning to receive in the state.

“I think we’ve crossed the credibility threshold,” Butland said. “He’s not a joke anymore.”

He added, “I guess whatever the people of Ohio decide Tom Daschle and the others will have to live with.”

Springer has drawn crowds as he has traveled the state keynoting Democratic Party functions and dinners, and some strategists believe his ability to win the primary is not a far-fetched notion.

Some in the party are already looking past the March 2, 2004, primary and are privately worried about the effect Springer could have on the party’s presidential nominee in what they all agree is a key swing state.

“It raises serious questions about how a presidential candidate would manage it,” Corzine said. “But I think [that person] could handle it like we are: He wouldn’t be our first choice but if that’s what the people choose —”

Daschle said it’s too early to know whether Springer could doom the top of the Democratic ticket in Ohio.

The state voted 50 percent for George W. Bush, 46 percent for Al Gore and 4 percent for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential election. But in 1992 and 1996, Ohio voted for Democrat Bill Clinton.

“Ohio, I think everybody believes, ought to be more Democratic than what it now stands at,” Corzine said, noting the state has a considerable labor movement presence and has experienced harsh economic challenges.

“If you were going to run on an economic platform, Ohio ought to be one of those states where it would be most forceful,” he added.

Minority Whip Harry Reid (Nev.), the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said it is too early to tell if Springer’s candidacy would have a negative impact on other 2004 races. When asked whether Democrats should endorse against Springer in the primary, Reid deferred to the DSCC chairman.

“Jon Corzine will decide that,” Reid said.

The DSCC chairman flatly said the committee would not endorse in the primary, regardless of which candidates eventually toss their hats into the ring.

The former Goldman, Sachs & Co. chairman also said that Springer’s ability to pour personal resources into the race bears no weight on the way the party views his political viability.

As Democratic Party strategists have privately struggled with a possible Springer candidacy, his ability to self-fund a race has been virtually the only positive factor they can discern.

Springer has been extremely generous to Democrats in the past, a fact that would appear to make it more difficult for the party to turn its back on his candidacy.

By his own estimation, Springer has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic causes and candidates in the past two decades, and he is one of the party’s top donors in Ohio.

Federal Election Commission records also show that in the past two cycles he has donated at least $44,000 to federal candidates, including putting $20,000 into the New York Senate race in 2000 and $10,000 into the New Jersey Senate race in 2002 through joint fundraising committees.

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