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Democratic Senators Slated to Play Pivotal Roles in ’04 Primary Season

With their ability to mobilize statewide political organizations on behalf of a presidential contender, Democratic Senators from as many as 15 states could emerge as key players in the Democratic presidential nominating contest.

The compressed primary schedule, coupled with a crowded field, has forced the 10 Democratic candidates to look beyond Iowa and New Hampshire for victories.

During the next three months, the candidates are expected to actively seek support from the 22 undecided Senators who represent states that will hold primary contests from Feb. 3 to March 2, 2004. So far, only two Democratic Senators who do not share a home state with a contender have made such an endorsement.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who represents Michigan and its 128 delegates to the Democratic nominating convention, said she has been approached by candidates but so far has made no commitments.

“Everybody has talked to me, but I am not at this point planning on making an endorsement,” she said. “We will see as time goes on.”

One Senator who is already being relied on to help his candidate score an important win, however, is Delaware’s Tom Carper, who has thrown his support to Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.).

Carper said he decided to endorse Lieberman because “I think he would be a good president.” He added that he intends to help the Connecticut Democrat woo voters in his home state.

But what looks likes a big leg up for Lieberman in Delaware could be quickly offset. The state’s senior Senator, Joseph Biden, has indicated that he would likely lend his support to either Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) or the fledgling campaign of retired Gen. Wesley Clark.

Some Senators are putting their own fortunes first when eyeing the presidential contest, choosing to stay on the sidelines in an election year when their names will also appear on the ballot.

Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold said several candidates have sought him out, but added that he has decided against endorsing anyone because he is running for another term.

“A number of them said they would like to talk to me and a couple of them have,” said Feingold, whose state will award 72 delegates on Feb. 17. “I am running for re-election, and I am not going to take sides.”

But others hinted that the idea of helping to sway their state to a candidate’s column might be enough to lead them to make the leap. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who recently saw fellow Californian Dianne Feinstein get behind Kerry, said the prospect that her state might still be in play on March 2 could encourage her to endorse a candidate.

“I think it is exceedingly exciting for me,” said Boxer, whose state offers the largest number of delegates, 370. “I may jump in because of that, to tell you the truth.

“But at this point I am just still waiting to see what happens,” she added.

Lieberman’s campaign has been perhaps the most aggressive in promulgating the theory that there will be life after New Hampshire.

With 269 delegates up for grabs, his advisers have christened Feb. 3 “Tidal Wave Tuesday,” a day they’ve targeted for a series of primary wins in states as diverse as Delaware and Oklahoma.

While Lieberman continues to campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire, aides acknowledge that winning several contests in early February is a key part of their strategy to capture the nomination.

“We are focused on both Iowa and New Hampshire, but the schedule has changed and it is very heavily loaded on Feb. 3,” said Tovah Ravitz-Meehan, Lieberman’s deputy communications director.

Seven states will hold primaries on Feb. 3, and by March 3, nearly two dozen more will have played their part in the nominating process.

“There is no doubt that candidates will be spending significantly more time in these places than people have in the past,” said Jeff Forbes, deputy political director for the 1996 Clinton/Gore re-election campaign.

A candidate needs to win 2,159 delegates to officially become the nominee, and by March 3, a total of 2,241 delegates will have been allocated. Although it’s currently inconceivable that a candidate will have emerged from the jumbled field to reach the 2,159 mark in early March, a clear frontrunner is likely to have been anointed by that time.

“By then somebody will have had enough momentum and the writing will be on the wall,” said Forbes, who serves as the minority staff director on the Senate Finance Committee.

Lieberman’s not the only candidate who believes the race will take longer to unfold. Aides to Kerry and Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) acknowledge it is going to take more than strong showings in January for any candidate to win the nomination.

“At this point, we are focusing intensely on everything through Michigan [Feb. 7] and doing as much as we can in states that come after that,” said Erik Smith, communications director for Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.).

Demonstrating how serious the Democratic candidates are about winning these states, several of the campaigns have hired full-time staffers to put campaign organizations into place. For example, a Kerry spokesman readily listed more than a dozen states other than Iowa and New Hampshire where the Massachusetts Democrat has hired campaign staffers.

“It is pretty clear these states are going to play an important role in determining who the Democratic nominee is going to be,” said Robert Gibbs, a Kerry spokesman.

When it comes to the role Members supporting presidential candidates will play in these states, senior staffers from opposing presidential campaigns agreed that a Member’s endorsement is worthless unless he activates his political operation to work on the candidate’s behalf, or at the very least raise money, especially when the campaign funds threaten to run dry after New Hampshire.

“Everyone is different and everyone has its own attributes,” one aide to a presidential candidate said about Members’ endorsements. “Some of them are meaningless and are nothing more than a press release. But some are more meaningful, because their staffs might work hard for you or the Member might roll up his sleeves and really get involved.”

Even though some candidates are investing serious time and resources in states other than Iowa and New Hampshire, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, a Roll Call contributing writer, said she believes the nomination cannot be won unless a candidate posts a strong showing in either the Hawkeye State or Granite State.

“I believe the winner of Iowa and New Hampshire will have a lot of jet stream behind them versus someone going into [a state] and setting up camp right now and putting all the pieces in place,” said Brazile, who added these candidates are setting themselves up to “watch someone come in there and steal all their thunder.”

Even Members whose states were ignored in the 2000 presidential election are expecting to get attention in the coming months.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) complained that Vice President Al Gore made no effort to visit his state in the 2000 general election campaign and vowed earlier this year not to support any candidate who does not pay attention to smaller population states.

The North Dakota Democrat said he has yet to be asked by any of the candidates for his endorsement, but added, “I have had several say to me, ‘You know we are building in that trip to North Dakota.’ And then there is always a grin.”

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