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In 1991, defense-hawk Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) caught the presidential bug, abandoned his record and opposed the first Persian Gulf War — a big mistake. Has the same thing happened to Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.)? [IMGCAP(1)]

Last week, Bayh — one of the four lead sponsors of the resolution that authorized the 2003 Iraq war and chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council — was one of just 13 Senators to vote against the confirmation of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The others were all liberal Democrats, plus Independent Jim Jeffords (Vt.).

Bayh, who was on the short list for vice president in 2004, is an all-but-certain presidential candidate in 2008 — possibly the leading moderate in the race.

So, was his “no” vote on Rice a bid to win favor with the anti-war mainstream of the Democratic Party? Significantly, the arguable Democratic frontrunner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), voted for Rice — and also, taking a page directly from the centrists’ post-2004 playbook, went out of her way to show respect for foes of abortion and other “values” voters.

Bayh’s vote mystified some of his friends in the DLC. “He does strange things sometimes,” one of them said. Another speculated that Bayh, normally cautious, is eager to “raise his profile” and “step out” on national security issues.

Bayh’s staff insists that positioning for 2008 had nothing to do with his vote — that he remains a supporter of the war, but believes that the Bush administration has badly mishandled it and that Rice, as a principal manager, does not deserve “promotion.”

In the absence of further evidence of caving to the left, I’m inclined to accept that explanation.

Still, politicians’ actions have political consequences, and I think Clinton’s were more appropriate to her party’s current predicament than Bayh’s. A Northeast liberal, she’s tilting toward the center to make her profile more resemble that of her politically successful husband than, say, Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.).

Clinton’s speech in Albany to New York family-planning providers was a political masterstroke — simultaneously sticking to fundamental Democratic abortion-rights principles, expressing respect for the values of anti-abortion voters and whacking the Bush administration.

The speech, along with Clinton’s support for the Iraq war and recent expressions of religious faith, constitutes a near-perfect playing out of the wisest set of recommendations yet issued for Democrats post-2004.

Right after the election, the DLC published a “Blueprint” with articles by its top officials, Al From, Bruce Reed and Will Marshall, that urges the party to widen its appeal beyond “blue” and “battleground” states to the “heartland,” especially the nine that Bush won by margins of less than 10 percent: Florida, Ohio, West Virginia, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.

As From and Reed put it, reflecting on the 2004 defeat, “when Democrats do not compete in three-quarters of American soil, we have no margins for error in presidential elections — and we’re almost certain to be a permanent minority in Congress.” They added that, “competing nationally … would force Democrats to develop a national message that would have broader appeal to swing voters in both red and blue states.”

The formula? Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, the DLC’s think tank, advised that Democrats need to “close the confidence gap between the two parties on national security,” detach the party from “the rancid anti-Americanism of the conspiracy-mongering left” and “reassure working families that Democrats share their values,” including religious values.

“Democrats should keep in mind that Bill Clinton won a dozen red states in 1992 and 1996 with essentially the same [policy] positions as John Kerry. But Clinton’s humble origins, overt religiosity and cultural empathy with working families allowed him to bond with middle America in a way the Massachusetts Senator couldn’t.”

Sen. Clinton lacks her husband’s “humble origins,” but she goes out of her way to express religious faith, and she was one of the key architects of the “third way” agenda adopted by President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

In her Albany speech last week, Clinton said that pro-choice activists could “find common ground” with anti-abortionists. She also noted that, as first lady, she’d often advocated “‘teenage celibacy’ … I think it’s a synonym for abstinence,” a favorite conservative cause.

“Research shows that the primary reason that teenage girls abstain is because of their religious and moral values,” she said.

Unlike most liberals, who automatically disparage “abstinence only” pregnancy-prevention programs, Clinton said that “the jury is still out.” But she also stuck to the Democratic perspective by advocating greater access to family-planning services and over-the-counter sales of “Plan B” emergency contraception.

Clinton also was unswerving in her support for Roe v. Wade and blasted Bush’s inaugural address for talking up freedom as the defining goal of America while the president seeks to deny women here and abroad the freedom to make choices about reproduction.

Bill Clinton led the way in political “triangulation,” plying the vast ground between the right-wing GOP base and the left-wing Democratic base. Other Democrats could profit by his example. One of them obviously “gets it.”

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