The Key Democratic Race for ’08: Bayh vs. Warner vs. Edwards

by Stuart Rothenberg May 17, 2006 · 12:02 AM EDT

The race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination won’t begin officially until after November’s midterm elections, but already there are signs that a race-within-the-race is developing to become the “alternative” to frontrunner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y).

The three contenders, all born in and identified with red states, are Southerner John Edwards, pseudo-Southerner Mark Warner and Hoosier Sen. Evan Bayh.

Edwards, the only one of the three with a real Southern accent and real Southern roots, is the most liberal. He’s also the only one of the three who has run for president (and vice president) — a significant advantage given the challenges of putting together a presidential campaign and of building both national name recognition and a network of key activists and contributors.

In addition, Edwards is the only one of the three who has proven campaign skills. He’s terrific working a crowd in a small Iowa meeting hall or a big theater in Manchester, N.H. And he already has an overall theme for his campaign, which he developed from his “two Americas” rhetoric during the 2004 campaign.

Unlike his two main adversaries, Edwards defeated a sitting Senator, demonstrating his ability to succeed in an unfavorable political environment.

But Edwards’ liberalism also makes him the least likely of the three to benefit from the “electability” argument, which could well be Clinton’s Achilles heel.

It’s likely that the New York Senator will be the choice of Democrats when the caucuses and primaries start in January 2008 unless Democrats conclude that she cannot win the White House. But since Edwards couldn’t even carry his own state as a member of the Democrats’ 2004 national ticket, and given his liberal record in the Senate, he is not positioned to take advantage of that crucial liability for the frontrunner.

Warner, a popular former Virginia governor, is about as Southern as a Philly cheesesteak or a pastrami on rye. But that hasn’t stopped him from emerging as the early favorite of many centrist Democrats who believe that Clinton would be a disaster as a nominee and that their party must choose someone who can carry at least a couple of red states.

Born in Indiana, Warner went to Rockville High School in Vernon, Conn., before attending George Washington University and Harvard Law School. But his success in Virginia — following a surprisingly strong, though unsuccessful, showing in a 1996 challenge to Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) and a 2001 gubernatorial campaign in which he wooed rural voters — has given him credentials as a moderate who can connect with Southerners, and red-staters in general.

While Warner is putting together a savvy veteran team and will have obvious appeal to Democrats looking for a centrist and a winner, he has plenty to prove. First, he has never won a race that wasn’t handed to him. His gubernatorial victory was much more about the disastrous performance of outgoing GOP Gov. Jim Gilmore than about Warner. (It also came shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, an event that froze the race in place at a time when Warner was comfortably ahead.)

In that race, Warner’s rural, conservative Democratic shtick, though extremely successful, was much more the creation of consultants Steve Jarding and Dave Saunders than the natural expression of Warner’s style and personality.

Second, even those sympathetic to the former Virginia governor say he is at heart a salesman who will have to prove to Democratic voters that he is serious enough and presidential enough to deserve their support.

And third, given the public’s attention to the war on terrorism and to national security issues, Warner’s almost total lack of foreign policy experience should strike voters as a serious liability. Edwards’ lack of credentials in that area clearly hurt him in his previous presidential bid (and likely will hurt him again) — and Warner has even less international experience than Edwards had.

Bayh is, in a sense, the only non-Southerner of the three hopefuls, though he has established a long political record that pegs him as a moderate who has succeeded in attracting Republican voters.

He, too, benefits from the electability argument, since he has won five consecutive elections — for secretary of state, governor and the Senate — in Indiana, one of the reddest of red states.

But like Warner, Bayh, the son of a former Sen. Birch Bayh (D), has never had a difficult race, so it isn’t clear how he will perform as an underdog. And while Edwards and Warner seem to have outgoing personalities, Bayh is much more low-key and stiff.

The Indiana Democrat strikes me as serious and sincere, and unlike most politicians, he talks about difficult issues as if he understands that few, if any, of them have easy answers. His service on the Senate Intelligence Committee is an asset given the problems facing the country today.

But the real question is whether Bayh can excite Democrats. In a party filled with so many angry people, how will Bayh sell?

Edwards proved to be a strong campaigner during the previous Democratic race, but it is hard to see how he has overcome his past weaknesses. Bayh is clearly presidential, but he may not be able to energize Democratic audiences enough to pull ahead of his competitors. And Warner has a long way to go to convince Democrats in early primary and caucus states that as a one-term governor he has the credentials, seriousness and maturity to sit in the Oval Office. Yet one of them could well emerge as “the alternative” to Clinton in January 2008.

The race within a race bears watching.