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Time for Second-Tier 2008 Candidates to Step Up

I got in a little hot water last week for suggesting on CNN that it’s time to set some debate criteria for second-tier presidential candidates who, by their very definition, are not ready for prime time. After numerous angry e-mails from Sen. Chris Dodd’s (D-Conn.) camp (some bordering on insulting and others rather naive), I came to the conclusion that perhaps I should be a little more plain-spoken on the subject and not just rely on polls. [IMGCAP(1)]

Very few of us — very, very, very few —are going to be president of the United States. And that applies to most of the Republican and Democratic candidates currently seeking the job. So what do you do if you’re a second-tier candidate who looks in the mirror and sees someone capable of being president, but who looks at the bank account, the polls and the buzz and finds little confirmation of that possibility? You dismiss current polls as premature and hold onto the hope that you can use the intimate setting of campaigning in early primary states to catapult yourself to a respectable finish.

Bill Clinton did it in 1992, and a lot of strategies hang on repeating history. Unfortunately, we’re no longer in the 1990s.

One of Sen. Joseph Biden’s (D-Del.) advisers told me to stay tuned because “between this national visibility and his presence in Iowa, you should be on the lookout for bumps in the polls come September.” Lord, have mercy, I will indeed await that rise — from an asterisk to 2 percent.

You also can try to increase poll numbers by becoming mad, like former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, who lashes out at his Democratic opponents, or a little zany, like Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who can’t help but remind us that he married long after his previous run for the presidency.

Over on Republican soil, I couldn’t help but notice that former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was doing some weeding out on “Fox News Sunday” when he suggested Republicans had only “three serious choices” — and not one of them is now considered second-tier. Oh boy, just wait until those pesky GOP voters attend the Ames straw poll next month in Iowa. We might be down to two choices, or “none of the above” may still reign supreme with most Republicans.

For all these second-tier candidates struggling for that right moment in the debate to shine or to get voters to pay more attention, let me offer some advice from someone who has supported and backed fringe candidates, asterisks and more than a few come-from- behinds. You have three choices.

One, you solidly plod along hoping everyone else is wrong. This is perhaps what Team Dodd is hoping will spring them from eternal doom once voters get tired of the rock stars and come down to earth. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) has seen some success with this strategy, as his polling numbers have hit the double digits and he leads or is tied with former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) in some early states.

Two, you can go ballistic on the front- runner(s). Ask former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore (R) if this works, or the staff of former Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) if this worked against ex-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s (D) campaign back in 2004. This can work, but it is a hard situation to control. Come on Camp Edwards, your 2004 campaign benefited from this internecine warfare in the previous presidential cycle. But I don’t know if Edwards can benefit from the currently raging battle of the two top Democratic heavyweights — Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.).

Three — and this is my recommendation — you look for a lucky break or something to keep you in the hunt for votes come this fall as you say the things that others can’t and hope that you can capitalize on the country’s mood.

You decide, what the heck, you have nothing to lose so you will become the vessel for new ideas, new policies and new ways of thinking about government. This is a time to really offer the American people what they long for again in politics — a candidate who makes them feel safe and secure; a candidate who is confident in their abilities and who does not have to put down his or her opponent; a candidate who can talk about the future with hope and optimism.

Simply stated: Break out with something new, bold and different.

The rest of us need the third option to be used at a time when the country is just about fed up with everyone in Washington. Capitol Hill’s idea deficit is almost as large as the budget deficit and just as potentially threatening. Now is the time for outside candidates to push the envelope’s edge on “conventional wisdom” on Iraq, health care, trade, energy independence and many more issues.

In fact, with the expanded calendar and the omnipresent media, second-tier candidates can serve the important function of minor- party candidates in the 19th and 20th centuries — spurring attention to new ideas of social progress such as abolition, suffrage and improved working conditions.

And as the leaves begin to change with the approaching fall season, so, too, will voters naturally begin to turn their focus on the candidates. When they hear these bold, imaginative ideas, the polls will move and the money will come. These races break late as voters start weeding out the frontrunners and looking around to see if anybody else is electable. Team Dodd is right. It’s not too late to start blooming. But harvest time is just around the corner.

Donna Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grass-roots political consulting firm.

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