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When Indiana Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh voted against Condoleezza Rice as secretary of State last week, it was seen as the most public sign yet of his interest in running for president in 2008.

But Bayh has been maneuvering behind the scenes for months to put the framework for a White House bid in place.

The Indiana Senator hired several key advisers to beef up his campaign team and is doing outreach in the donor community to lay the financial foundation for a candidacy. Last week he met with a group of roughly 50 financial supporters in Washington, D.C., to discuss his future plans.

“He hasn’t made the firm decision [to run for president] yet but he is doing everything he needs to do to get him there,” said one source close to Bayh.

For his part, Bayh recently told George Stephanopoulos of ABC News that he was “not ruling anything out or in” about 2008.

Much of Bayh’s early activity is born of necessity, as several of the other would-be 2008 candidates — Sens. John Kerry (Mass.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) as well as former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards — already have built-in national networks.

Kerry and Edwards shared the national ticket in 2004, and Clinton is a larger-than-life figure in Democratic politics.

The three, if they choose to run, are expected to opt out of federal matching funds for the Democratic primaries, a move that would cripple candidates not able to match that financial firepower.

The group of candidates who could be hampered as a result include Bayh, who is not as well-known on a national level — though he is a force within the party’s more moderate wing as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council.

Bayh’s centrist credentials combined with his eight years as governor of the ever-more-Republican state of Indiana and his good looks make him one of a handful of candidates hoping to emerge as the alternative to Clinton — assuming she is in the contest.

“If she is a candidate, she will be a strong candidate but history tells us that there will be an opening for someone else in the case where there is a strong frontrunner,” said a Bayh source who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

With an eye on moving quickly to consolidate his chances of emerging as the Clinton alternative, Bayh has made a number of notable hires in the past few months.

Most interestingly, Bayh brought in Paul Maslin, a partner in the polling firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates, after the Senator parted ways with Mark Penn and his firm Penn Schoen & Berland Associates.

Penn will handle the polling for Clinton’s 2006 re-election bid as well as any other future races and as a result had to choose his horse almost three years before the first votes are cast in the Iowa caucuses.

Maslin is best known for his survey research for the insurgent presidential campaign of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean last cycle but he has handled a number of statewide races, including the campaigns of former California Gov. Gray Davis (D).

Aside from Maslin, Bayh has re-hired Linda Moore Forbes to be his deputy chief of staff, a position she held prior to serving as political director for Edwards’ vice presidential effort in 2004.

Steve Bouchard, who ran Ohio for the 527 group America Coming Together last cycle, will oversee Bayh’s leadership political action committee, Americans for Responsible Leadership; Dan Pfeiffer, who served as deputy campaign manager for the unsuccessful re-election bid of former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), is now Bayh’s communications director.

“He is putting together a team that covers strategy and message, that covers fundraising and that covers politics,” said a source close to Bayh.

With a strong staff now in place, Bayh’s task over the next year will be to prove his fundraising chops, according to party insiders.

Though he ended 2004 with more than $6 million in his Senate campaign committee, after winning a second term in November with 62 percent of the vote, Bayh’s ability to grow his fundraising base onto the national level remains an open question.

The main vehicle for Bayh’s presidential aspirations will be his leadership PAC, through which he raised only $141,000 in the 2004 cycle; he doled out roughly $280,000 primarily on donations to Democratic Senators and candidates for the Senate.

A Bayh adviser, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, said that the PAC will be significantly more active in state and local races across the country over the coming two years.

“The PAC has traditionally supported Senate candidates but may expand its activity as the Democratic Party faces real challenges in trying to bring back state parties and elect Democrats in states that are becoming more Republican every cycle,” the source said.

In the runup to the 2004 Democratic presidential primary process Edwards and then-Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) donated heavily to state parties and local candidates in the crucial early states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a likely White House contender in 2008, is already following that blueprint, sprinkling funds on candidates in early presidential states from his own leadership PAC.

Those close to Bayh insist that while he doesn’t have the fundraising base of Clinton, he will show surprising strength.

For example, Bayh has a solid network of supporters in New York City that he has called on to raise money for Democratic Senate candidates in the past. Perhaps not coincidentally, one of Bayh’s top political advisers — law school classmate Richard Gordon — is based in New York.

One high-level Democratic fundraiser not affiliated with any potential presidential candidate said that Bayh has a sound understanding of the need to constantly broaden his financial network and has gone out of his way to make contacts in Chicago, Los Angeles and Florida, all major repositories for Democratic money.

He is also well plugged in with business and technology leaders; “[Bayh] has as many connections in that world as anyone else looking at running in 2008,” the fundraiser said.

Even so, the financial bar with any combination of Clinton, Kerry, Edwards and Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) — who has substantial personal wealth and close ties to high-tech donors — in the presidential contest will be extremely high.

All four would likely bypass federal matching funds, which limit the amount of money a candidate can spend in each primary or caucus state.

As a result, one informed Democratic strategist estimated that while the price of entry for the 2004 presidential race was roughly $20 million, that figure could double or even triple in 2008.

“It’s hard to see how Clinton or Kerry wouldn’t be able to raise $40 to $50 million,” the source said. “For the candidates that don’t have that potential, you have to have an inside straight to win the nomination.”

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