Presidential Spring Training
This stage of the presidential race is a lot like spring training in baseball. Names that may never be heard again, once the season begins and games really count, fill the box scores and occupy the news columns. People such as former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore or former Alaska senator Mike Gravel, who have no remote claim to be considered presidential candidates, get mentioned at the bottom of stories.
Speculation overwhelms facts in the preseason, just as hope triumphs over experience in the hearts of Cubs fans at this time of year. In the past couple of weeks, The Post has created front-page “news stories” about the possible presidential candidacies of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson without either of them taking a single step toward running.
History suggests that 90 percent or more of what is written now about the White House hopefuls will be forgotten once the first real votes are cast next January. Do you recall the Howard Dean boom of 2003? It existed mostly in the minds of political reporters looking for something to write about — and it collapsed once voters became engaged.
Nonetheless, the political equivalent of the Hot Stove League — the off-season chatter of die-hard fans — is going full force. On the Republican side, the unsettled picture allows for one “new star” after another — first Mitt Romney, then Rudy Giuliani, now Fred Thompson — to emerge as a threat to Arizona Sen. John McCain, who keeps piling up endorsements from across the GOP spectrum and deepening an organization that already looks formidable.
On the Democratic side, which commands greater interest because the Democrats dominate in almost every poll on 2008 prospects, the question of the day is “What’s happening to Barack Obama?”
The freshman senator from Illinois has had the most dramatic rise of any politician in the past six months, thanks to a best-selling book and to the crowd-pulling appearances he has made on his coast-to-coast campaign travels.
But of late, Obama’s soaring rhetoric has left some of his audiences hungry for more substance from the senator. That was the case at a March 24 health-care forum in Las Vegas, where Obama promised to achieve universal coverage as president but had to admit that — unlike former senator John Edwards of North Carolina — he had not yet formulated a plan for getting there. And it was the case again Wednesday, when he was one of seven candidates addressing several thousand members of the Building and Construction Trades, AFL-CIO, at their convention in Washington.
Obama had the bad luck to be the last of the seven speakers, and the program was well behind schedule by then. He began his remarks with the comment “I’ve got a vote at noon, so I’m going to have to cut this short” — suggesting that this audience was hardly his priority.
By contrast, the previous speaker, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, played the crowd like a virtuoso, lowering his voice to a confidential whisper to brief them on his views on Iraq — you could have heard a pin drop — then bringing the audience of beefy construction workers to their feet with a shouted pledge that, “When I’m president, we will spend what it takes to give our veterans the health care they deserve.”
Obama never varied from a conversational monotone and, unlike Biden, expressed no gratitude to labor for past support and barely mentioned the issues of minimum-wage legislation, prevailing wage guarantees and bills to strengthen union bargaining rights that had made up the bulk of the other candidates’ speeches.
The judgment of the California delegate I met walking out was: “He left me kind of flat.”
But Obama’s problem, for now, is not Joe Biden, who is searching for his own footing in the race. His problem is Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who has a far more solid campaign structure — and the lead in the polls. Her speech to the unionists, like her appearance at the health-care forum, was a demonstration of her deep familiarity with the issues — and her personal and political bonds with many in the audience.
In her high-energy performance, Clinton went even deeper into the details of pending labor legislation than did Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who has 26 more years of experience in Congress, and she had them on their feet as often as Biden did.
It’s just spring training, but it’s pretty clear who has the best pitching staff.