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‘Talent Primary’ Heats Up

’08 Hopefuls Court Advisers

The dust has hardly settled from the 55th presidential inauguration, but the 2008 “talent primary” has already begun.

The recruiting of top political operatives is considered particularly crucial for the 2008 contest since it will mark the first time since 1928 that — barring a stunning reversal from Dick Cheney — neither a sitting president nor vice president will make the presidential race. (In 1952, Vice President Alben Barkley ran but lost in the primaries.)

And while consultants are sensitive to the idea that they take a mercenary approach to their trade, the immediate aftermath of an election offers them as much opportunity to shop for a candidate as it gives candidates a chance to seek out the right advisers.

Take the case of Steve Jarding, whose career as a Democratic consultant has been anything but a straight line.

In 1996, Jarding was riding high as a senior adviser to then-Sen. Bob Kerrey (Neb.), who was considered an odds-on Democratic candidate for president in 2000.

Four years later, soon after Kerrey announced he would not seek the presidency, Jarding left to go work for the Virginia gubernatorial campaign of telecommunications entrepreneur Mark Warner (D).

In 2001 Warner won the open-seat race, the first time in eight years that a Democrat had held the commonwealth’s top office.

By 2002, Jarding had re-emerged at the center of the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Jarding first aligned with the campaign of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (D), running his leadership political action committee.

After leaving Edwards, Jarding became a top adviser to fellow presidential hopeful Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.).

Though Graham never seriously challenged for the nomination — and though Jarding never joined the presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) or that of his running mate, Edwards — all was not lost for the operative.

With Warner’s gubernatorial term nearing an end and the Democratic Party looking for a presidential candidate who might pick off some red states in 2008, Warner has become a hot outsider choice.

Such is the life of the seasoned political operative, who often hops from candidate to candidate every four years in search of the ever-elusive prize: a victorious presidential campaign.

In 2004, a wide-open contest on the Democratic side, there was considerable early jousting to secure the talents of Bob Shrum, a media consultant and speechwriter. Insiders dubbed the process the “Shrum primary.”

While Shrum eventually chose Kerry over Edwards, he was unable to put the Massachusetts Senator over the top in the general election. In fact, Kerry’s loss marked the eighth straight unsuccessful Democratic presidential campaign with which Shrum had been affiliated. Shrum is now retired from political consulting and is teaching at New York University.

With both parties’ 2008 primaries so wide open, putting together a top-tier campaign team has become one of the first indications of a candidate’s momentum.

“In order to win something as complicated as a presidential race, you can’t do it by yourself,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster and Roll Call contributing writer. “Most of these people are expanding from a Senate race to a national race. That’s like expanding your business from a one-state operation to a 50-state operation.”

Among Republicans, Virginia Sen. George Allen struck the first blow of this behind-the-scenes contest by hiring Dick Wadhams at the end of last year to be his chief of staff.

Wadhams, who burnished his credentials by managing former Rep. John Thune’s (R-S.D.) defeat of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) in 2004, downplayed any impact of his hiring on Allen’s 2008 plans. But few insiders were fooled.

“From a campaign manager standpoint, Dick Wadhams is the prized free agent signing of the election cycle — not just the ’06 cycle but the 2008 cycle,” said Glen Bolger, another Republican pollster.

Allen has also hired Jason Miller, a veteran of several Senate campaigns — including that of Tom Coburn (Okla.) last cycle — to manage his 2006 effort. The only serious Democrat mentioned as a challenger to Allen is Warner, who is expected to take a pass in order to keep his stock high for 2008.

While Allen may be off to the fastest start in assembling a sought-after inner circle of political advisers, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) looks to have the deepest bench of talent among Republicans at this point.

Frist, who will leave the Senate in 2006 in keeping with a two-term-limit pledge, boasts an impressive team of advisers led by Recording Industry Association of America President Mitch Bainwol.

Bainwol served as executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee under Frist in the 2002 cycle — a cycle in which the GOP picked up two seats despite defending six more incumbents than Democrats. Bainwol also served as chief of staff at the Republican National Committee during the 1998 cycle.

Frist could also benefit from the perception among party insiders that he is the early frontrunner for the nomination, and his already significant campaign donations into key early states like Iowa and New Hampshire from his Volunteer political action committee.

Winston pointed out that the Iowa caucuses are roughly three years away and it is never too early to start constructing a campaign team.

“You have to spend a minimum of one full year [campaigning] in Iowa and a full year of fundraising ahead of that,” he said. “You have to have some organizational structure put together by the second half of 2005.”

Several other potential contenders on the Republican side are in the very early stages of building a kitchen cabinet for a presidential bid.

Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel has been outspoken about his interest in the presidency and has said he will make a final decision about the contest in 2006.

Hagel, a successful businessman before coming to the Senate in 1996, largely keeps his own counsel, say several insiders who know him. He does, however, consult his Senate chief of staff, Lou Ann Linehan, as well as media consultant Doug McAuliffe and pollster Glen Bolger, on political matters.

Though Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (R), a darling of conservatives, has kept mum about his intentions for 2008, most connected party players believe he will at least consider a run.

If so, he will turn to Mark Rodgers, his staff director at the Republican Conference, as well as John Brabender, a Pittsburgh-based media consultant.

Those close to Santorum say his attention is largely focused on winning re-election in 2006 — not a foregone conclusion, given that Democrats have been itching for a chance to knock him off for several years, arguing that Santorum’s staunch conservative stances are out of touch with a state that has voted Democratic for president several elections running.

Attorney David Girard-diCarlo will be the finance chairman for Santorum’s re-election race and would likely play a similar role in any Santorum presidential bid.

One man who may be exempt from the talent chase is Arizona Sen. John McCain, who, if he chooses to make a second run for the presidency, would likely rely on the same stable of advisers that nearly enabled him to upset then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) in 2000.

A second presidential campaign is likely to be led by McCain Chief of Staff Mark Salter as well as political advisers John Weaver and Rick Davis.

Among Democrats, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) has by far the deepest and most experienced group of advisers, led, of course, by her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

Clinton, the subject of “will she or won’t she” speculation since she first ran for the Senate in 2000, has surrounded herself with a small group of advisers who are notable for their loyalty and gender.

Of the 10 members of her inner circle, seven are women — an unprecedented degree of gender diversity for a serious presidential bid.

Patti Solis-Doyle and Maggie Williams — both of whom have worked with Clinton since her days as first lady — are considered the Senator’s two most trusted confidantes.

Clinton also has a team of consultants who had a major role in her husband’s White House: Mandy Grunwald and Mark Penn.

While Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh’s candidacy has not reached the degree of organization of Sen. Clinton’s, the high-profile moderate is putting together a solid team of his own.

Led by Senate Chief of Staff Tom Sugar, Bayh also boasts big names from the consulting world, including media adviser Anita Dunn and Clinton White House veteran Ron Klain, an Indiana native. Bayh recently added pollster Paul Maslin to his team.

Linda Moore Forbes, the political director for Edwards’ vice presidential campaign, is also a past deputy chief of staff for the Indiana Senator. And Nancy Jacobson, Penn’s wife, is Bayh’s chief fundraiser.

Bayh recently bolstered his credentials with the hiring of Dan Pfeiffer as his Senate communications director. Pfeiffer served as deputy campaign manager in the 2004 re-election race of Daschle.

Perhaps the biggest unknown on the Democratic side is whether Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry intends to make another run for the presidency in 2008.

Kerry was generally credited with running a creditable if imperfect campaign, and it is not clear whether top Democratic operatives would flock to a second bid.

If he did decide to make the race, Kerry would likely draw on the advice of a close-knit group that includes his Senate chief of staff David McKean, consultant Jill Alper and PAC director John Giesser.

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