Pres­i­den­tial Spring Train­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook -

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.

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