With Members once again a captive audience, several top-tier Democratic presidential candidates have sharpened their appeals to this key constituency with just four months left before the first votes will be cast in the nominating process.
Both Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) convened meetings of their Congressional supporters earlier this week at which they outlined the state of their respective campaigns and previewed outreach plans to sway undecided Members.
Congressional supporters of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean expect to meet next week, according to Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.).
Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) called on Rep. Albert Wynn (Md.) to turn out supporters for Tuesday night’s Congressional Black Caucus presidential debate and has been in regular contact with Rep. Mel Watt (N.C.), according to Edwards’ campaign officials, in the days leading up to his formal presidential announcement next Tuesday.
The increased focus on Member endorsements comes as the presidential campaign hits full stride with a series of debates and fiery rhetoric from the candidates.
Without question Gephardt has run the most organized and comprehensive effort to cull Member endorsements to this point in the race in hopes of building a strong base of support — and a legion of willing foot soldiers — among his longtime colleagues.
“[Members] are terrific validators of our message,” said Gephardt senior adviser Steve Elmendorf.
At Tuesday’s meeting, which was attended by roughly two-thirds of the 31 Members who have endorsed Gephardt, campaign pollster Ed Reilly and Elmendorf made presentations.
Reilly presented a PowerPoint slide show based on a memo the campaign circulated to Members last week, which argued that Gephardt is the strongest candidate to knock off President Bush next November.
Elmendorf then outlined the various ways that Members can be helpful to Gephardt including fundraising and buttonholing undecided colleagues. “We have a two-fold program,” he explained. “We want to give Members that are for us more things to do, and since every Member is a delegate we want to expand our delegate count.”
Rep. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), who attended the meeting, said he plans to hold a Gephardt fundraiser in Akron, Ohio, on Sept. 21. Rep. Jerry Costello (Ill.) will hold an event on Friday, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) is scheduled to raise money for the campaign Oct. 3.
Members also received a list of three or four uncommitted colleagues to lobby on Gephardt’s behalf.
The Missouri Congressman has begun to weave his Congressional experiences into his stump speech, regularly recounting his fight to pass then-President Bill Clinton’s economic stimulus package in 1993, which he argues led to seven years of prosperity.
“A big part of our message is the 1993 economic program and how Dick led the fight to get that passed,” said Elmendorf. “Members who were here with Dick in that fight are great to go to states and talk about it.”
And plans are already in the works to put Members on the ground in key early states such as Iowa and New Hampshire this winter to testify to Gephardt’s effectiveness.
“In December and January there will be an army of Congressional volunteers going to Iowa in support of Dick Gephardt,” Texas Rep. Chet Edwards (D) pledged after the meeting.
A day before Gephardt’s confab, Kerry brought together 10 of his Congressional supporters to discuss strategy for the next several months.
The goal of the meeting was “to further organize an operation to communicate with uncommitted delegates,” said Kerry spokesman Robert Gibbs.
Much of the Kerry brain trust was in attendance, including the Senator, campaign consultant Jill Alper, media consultant Jim Margolis and deputy campaign manager Marcus Jadotte.
Kerry’s latest television ads, airing in Iowa and New Hampshire, were shown and Members were given an overview of the race to date.
Call sheets were handed out to those in attendance so that “people can start talking to Members,” Gibbs said.
While neither Dean nor Edwards has yet formally met with his Congressional supporters, both camps emphasize that Members are playing a key role in their campaigns.
Lofgren, the first House Member to back the surging Dean candidacy, said she held a fundraiser Sunday night at her house in San Jose that brought in roughly $200,000 for the candidate.
Lofgren added that she had hoped to bring together Dean’s supporters, which now number nine, this week but was unable to because of the truncated House schedule.
Interestingly, Lofgren’s California colleague — Rep. Howard Berman (D) — is circulating a letter blasting Dean for his recent comments on Israel.
The California Congresswoman said that Dean has done little to define the roles each Member can play in the campaign. “We each have to find our appropriate niche,” she said.
Rep. Bob Filner (Calif.), for example, is a close Dean adviser on veterans’ issues as the No. 2 Democrat on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Lofgren said.
As for courting Members, Lofgren said Dean was more focused on “having the endorsement of a majority of the American voters.”
Edwards, the candidate with the least Congressional experience, prefers to keep several Members as close advisers rather than attempt to pile up a large number of endorsements, according to campaign press secretary Jennifer Palmieri.
“He is lucky to have the support of some Members that he relies on a great deal and are very active in our campaign,” she said.
Wynn, Watt and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (Texas) are closest to Edwards, according to Palmieri. All three are members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
A fourth CBC member, Rep. John Conyers (Mich.), has not yet endorsed but is in close contact with the North Carolina Senator. Edwards has done a fundraiser for Conyers, who has served in Congress since 1964 and is currently ranking member of the Judiciary Committee.
Palmieri noted that all eight of Edwards’ Congressional supporters have been invited to attend his official entry into the presidential race on Sept. 16 in his hometown of Robbins, N.C.