SACRAMENTO, CALIF. -- As the imminence of war in Iraq has increased -- and even as American public opinion has become more supportive of that war -- opposition emerged
as the central theme of a California Democratic Party convention last
weekend that was visited by a half-dozen Democratic presidential hopefuls. In
the first major campaign "cattle call" outside Washington, the
opponents of war with Iraq, most notably former Gov. Howard
Dean (D-Vt.), were rapturously received. The supporters of war, widely regarded as the
leading candidates in the nascent campaign, were not.
California draws significant attention from presidential candidates not
only because of its role as a national political ATM and its standing as
the source of one-fifth of the electoral votes needed to win the White
House, but also because next year's primary calendar may make it the
biggest prize of the primary season's Super Tuesday. The earliest
engagements -- in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and elsewhere -- may
well yield a split result. So March 2 -- when California and nine other
states, including New York, vote -- may prove decisive.
Here's how the Democratic contenders -- announced and still exploring,
present and absent -- came off at the most populous state's annual Democratic convention.
JOHN KERRY. Coming to California with the air of a putative if still relatively
little-known front-runner, the mostly liberal Massachusetts senator and
Vietnam War hero cruised through the San Francisco Bay Area, giving a
well-received address to the Commonwealth Club and attending a $900,000 fund-raiser
before running the swift boat of his candidacy onto a Sacramento sandbar. His vote last fall giving George W. Bush the authority needed to
launch a war against Iraq prompted some Kerry gymnastics in a press
conference with state and national reporters, as the senator explained how he was
changing his position without, um, changing his position. Even more worrisome
for Kerry partisans than his parsing of his position on the war -- he
would be for an Iraq war if necessary but not this war so
undiplomatically put together by this president -- should be his performance at state Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres' welcoming reception Friday night.
Unable because of his schedule to address a convention session on
Saturday or Sunday, Kerry was invited, along with Gov. Gray Davis (D-Calif.) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), to make some remarks at the chairman's evening
reception. Kerry treated this event, which usually takes the form of a meet-and-greet affair,
as something far more formal, delivering a 40-minute address that most
of the crowd quickly tuned out. The occasion was casual, the room was
hot, the sound system was poor and the din of most of the delegates
became more than noticeable after
the first 10 minutes. Yet Kerry, with his super-rich wife,
Teresa Heinz Kerry, looking more than a little uncomfortable standing by his side, soldiered on and eventually finished the speech, which included several "in conclusions" that,
unfortunately, were not realized. (In something of an oddity, Teresa is referred to as "Mrs. Heinz" by the Kerry staff.)
This caused former Gov. Jerry Brown (D-Calf.), who'd attended Kerry's San
Francisco dinner and has won more than a few presidential primaries
himself, to note that he wasn't sure Teresa Heinz Kerry "likes campaigning
that much." Well, not if she's going to have to stand there during a
speech that was four times as long as it should have been. Kerry is
clearly a seasoned senator with many interesting things to say about
foreign policy, national security and energy and environmental matters,
but if he doesn't develop a better sense of when to talk and when to keep quiet, his candidacy will be in trouble.
And in what may be an ominous sign, the senator easily won
the regular straw poll of California journalists as the most likely
Democratic nominee. Why is this a bad thing? Because it's always wrong.
In 1998, for example, only two journalists picked Gray Davis as the next
Governor, and one went on to work for him. The other is still writing,
and enjoys poking fun at the straw poll.
HOWARD DEAN. By evidence of his convention performance, the former Vermont governor
is very much for real. Delivering the most tumultuously received speech
in several years at a California convention, Dean, who said he is
"running to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,"
repeatedly brought the delegates to their feet. Excoriating
every aspect of the Bush agenda, Dean thundered to an explosive finish,
denouncing the Iraq war and shouting, "I want my country back!" as the
delegates screamed. Afterward, Dean's literature table was rushed by
delegates who took every one of his buttons and signs.
Dean also pointedly criticized two of the top-tier Democratic
candidates, Kerry and Sen.
John Edwards (D-N.C.), for supporting the war in Washington but criticizing
it in California. Actually, only Kerry could be accused of that; Edwards
bravely spoke of his support for military action against Saddam Hussein and was
roundly booed for it.
Dean is a rather cerebral dark horse and medical doctor whose campaign
not-so-subtly encourages comparisons to The West Wing's flinty yet
passionate President Jed Bartlet, also a brainiac New England
ex-governor. Indeed, Dean enjoys the support of West Wing star Martin
Sheen and, with "Dean For America" (which is also the name of the ex-governor's Web
site), has even borrowed the "Bartlet For America" slogan of the
TV show. (A Dean organizer claims that the Dean campaign had
the slogan first. Actually, the Bartlet slogan has been floating around for
several years, and the West Wing episode "Bartlet For America" aired in
December 2001. The Dean domain name was registered the following month.)
JOHN EDWARDS. A year ago, this freshman senator and multimillionaire
former trial lawyer bombed at the state Democratic convention
in Los Angeles. His theme last year? The concerns of "the average American" -- that staple of most
Democratic speeches -- whom he claimed was being ignored by
other politicians. His performance included not only a vacuous
pudding of a speech but a press conference that began with a reporter asking, "Senator, why are you here?" -- and went downhill from there.
This year he fared much better.
To his credit, Edwards did not dodge or try to spin his position on the Iraq
war, earning widespread boos from convention delegates when he said that military action is needed to remove the threat of Saddam
Hussein. Despite the boos, Edwards delivered an otherwise well-received
speech, frequently interrupted by applause, in which he skillfully
turned his surface image as a wealthy, pretty-boy Southern lawyer
into a populist parable, that of the mill worker's son who
became a trial lawyer and struck it rich by suing powerful corporate
interests on behalf of, yes, the average American. If Edwards turns out
to be more in tune with voters in the aftermath of the Iraq war, he
could do very well in California and elsewhere.
JOE LIEBERMAN. The Polonius-like Connecticut senator, 2000 vice-presidential
nominee and hero of the Democratic Leadership Council was slated to appear at the convention but canceled, citing
scheduling problems. (His stumping is complicated by his policy of not
campaigning on the Saturday Sabbath.) It was just as well. In his stead,
a Lieberman video was shown to the
delegates, who roundly booed it. California AFL-CIO chief Art Pulaski
then took the stage and asked
Torres to call Lieberman and report the response to the video. The
delegates cheered this rather impolite suggestion loudly. So much for
residual good feelings toward the onetime would-be vice president.
DENNIS KUCINICH. With Dean emerging as the most prominent anti-war candidate, other war
opponents in the field may have trouble gaining traction. Unless they do
something a little different. As George W. Bush was taking the stage in
the Azores to announce that there was only one day left for diplomacy
before Saddam Hussein had to "immediately and unconditionally disarm," the
radical Ohio representative and erstwhile boy mayor of Cleveland began his
speech to the convention. With song. The House Progressive Caucus chairman
has taken to opening speeches with snippets from patriotic hymns such as "America the Beautiful" and "The Star-Spangled
Banner." This most militantly anti-war of candidates uses his
singing both to startle the audience -- it does -- and
to juxtapose his sense of patriotism with what he sees as a sinister
right-wing takeover of America. It's something Kucinich started when he wowed
the Southern California Americans for Democratic Action group while
denouncing the "war on terrorism" shortly after September 11.
What will he do when the Iraq war starts? Not what other ranking
Democratic war critics say they'll do. "I will keep on speaking out and
protesting," Kucinich said before his speech. Even with troops in harm's
AL SHARPTON. The minister, civil-rights activist and would-be New York City politician
drew applause with a well-delivered speech against the war.
But he bristled afterward at questions about his controversial past, which has included
criticizing Jewish-owned businesses and very aggressively publicizing a
purported hate crime that turned out to be a hoax. Is he worried
that the entrance of former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.) -- reportedly encouraged to run by Democrats fearful that the polarizing
Sharpton might run away with much of the black primary vote -- will harm his campaign? "I'm not worried that Carol will take my black vote,"
he quipped. "I'm worried that Lieberman will take my Jewish vote."
CAROL MOSELEY BRAUN. Does this presidential race need yet another candidate who's against
the war and espouses predictably liberal views on other matters? The
former senator and ambassador to New Zealand said nothing that
was not said by many others at the convention. Still, she is the only
female presidential hopeful -- and one of only two African Americans -- and that might count for something.
DICK GEPHARDT. Like his fellow pro-war Beltway Democrat Joe Lieberman, the veteran
former House leader stayed away from the convention. Perhaps the most
interesting thing about the absence of this longtime party lion is
that it wasn't talked of much by consultants or journalists, who all but
ignored him in the straw poll even
though he is counted a front-runner in the field.
BOB GRAHAM. The veteran senator and former Florida governor, an opponent of the Iraq
war resolution last fall, skipped the California convention on account
of his ongoing recovery from heart surgery. Graham has had no particular California
presence in the past, and most consultants and activists
who talked about him at the convention viewed him as a candidate for
GARY HART. The former Colorado senator, who won big in California in his 1984
presidential campaign, is exploring a comeback 16 years
after ending his front-running 1988 candidacy in the wake of a sex
scandal. Hart gained fresh currency with his leadership of the
Bill Clinton-created U.S. Commission on National Security, which predicted
major terrorist attacks two years before 9-11. Following a round of
well-received television appearances and policy speeches, Hart has just
started raising exploratory money but skipped the cattle call in
California. "He's easily the most impressive of all of them," says one
prominent California journalist who has spent time with most of the
candidates. But is Hart really running for president -- or for secretary of
William Bradley, political writer for the LA Weekly and consultant on the NBC television series Mister Sterling, has served as a senior
adviser in Democratic presidential and gubernatorial campaigns.