Editor's note: Last week, TheStreet.com launched its Politics Blog, where John Fout will track the ongoing campaign for the White House. The following is a recent post to the blog.
In 2003, Howard Dean, a little-known governor from Vermont, joined the 2004 presidential race to raise the profile of health care in the national discourse. A few well-timed comments on Iraq coupled with a revolutionary Internet strategy shoved him into an unlikely role: Democratic front-runner.
It was a monumental moment in American politics and a throwback to elections of decades ago, when candidates could come from nowhere and wind up contending for the White House. We have only to go back 33 years, when Jimmy Carter, a virtually unknown governor from Georgia, announced his candidacy for presidency, only to spend his first year on the campaign as a nonevent in the polls. After his win in the Iowa caucuses, Carter was finally recognized as a possible contender.
Carter is not alone as a long-shot Democrat who wound up in the Oval Office. According to the White House Historical Association, Franklin Pierce, a senator from New Hampshire, emerged as the Democratic nominee for president in 1852 after his name was entered as a compromise candidate on the convention's 35th ballot. Although Pierce received the Democratic nomination, his party renounced him as a failure. Pierce, a handsome man who photographed well, went on to become the 14th president of the United States.
Dean wasn't as successful and wound up a joke after his well-publicized screaming fit. One edited video turned a passionate speech to supporters into a raving rant. Today's candidates have to be reminded that the camera is always rolling.
But Dean, Carter and even the history of Pierce make me wonder which of the lesser-known presidential hopefuls will make a similar move in the 2008 election season, if any.
The last two Democratic presidents were both governors: Carter and Clinton. They shared obscure poll numbers at this point in the election cycle. Only one Democratic governor has entered the 2008 race: Bill Richardson of New Mexico.
Richardson faces a loaded presidential field with hardened campaigners -- Sen. Hillary Clinton (D., N.Y.), former senator John Edwards and a popular newcomer, Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.)
The best weapons for an insurgent candidate are creative campaign strategies and establishing an appeal in the base of your party. The Richardson team has been working both angles.
Richardson was the first Democratic candidate to run campaign ads in Iowa and New Hampshire. He has received attention from the media and from viewers of his ads on YouTube. Richardson's ads are cleverly done. They mimic a job interview where the governor presents his past qualifications -- one of the ads states that he's overqualified for the position --
see them for yourself
The ads are right. Richardson remains a standout among the Democratic candidates because of his experience serving in Congress, as a diplomat, as an ambassador, as secretary of energy and as governor. No other candidate can match his varied resume. Interestingly, President Clinton named him to several of those positions.
Richardson also has announced a new book -- scheduled for release on Nov. 2. It offers an opportunity to show his range on one of the most important issues facing our country. The title explains it all:
Leading by Example: How We Can Inspire an Energy and Security Revolution
The Richardson campaign hasn't stopped there. He took an aggressive position on the war in Iraq in early May. Richardson called for Congress to exercise its powers under Article I of the Constitution to revoke the authority for the war. This de-authorization could not be vetoed by the president.
His aggressive stance got noticed. It was red meat on the liberal blogosphere, and it affected other candidates. Both Clinton and Obama voted against the Iraq troop funding bill later in May. They were in the minority: It passed the Senate, 80 to 14.
Richardson's campaign points to his move in poll numbers in New Hampshire after the debates -- from 4% to 10%. Has the breakout begun?
Aggression can backfire, however. I cringed during the recent debate in New Hampshire at one point. Speaking on Darfur, Richardson suggested:"Third, we need China, to lean on China, which has enormous leverage over Darfur. And if the Chinese don't want to do this, we say to them, maybe we won't go to the Olympics." This smacks of a "cold" war with China and another boycott made by another governor who became president -- Jimmy Carter.
Another misstep was Richardson's appearance May 27 on NBC's
Meet the Press
. Many observers were mesmerized by the meltdown as he ducked and ran from difficult questions from Tim Russert -- see
. Richardson seems to have survived, but is it a Dean-like foreshadowing?
On the Republican side, six little-known guys sit at the bottom of the polls. I see one candidate who puts himself out fearlessly in contrast to his opponents: Rep. Ron Paul (R., Texas). Will he be able to break out from the back of the pack?
It may prove more difficult for him than for Richardson. The Republican field has recently added a new entrant -- Fred Thompson, former senator and an actor on NBC's popular
Law & Order
-- who has created a buzz. Mr. Thompson has surged in the polls:
shows him even with Rudy Giuliani in the lead
-- though there is a wide margin of error.
Paul possesses a consistent and conservative record. He campaigns on a message of freedom, reduced government and non-interventionist foreign policy -- including opposition to the war in Iraq.
He is not a single-issue campaigner, like some, nor does he have the faux conservative credentials of the front-runners. You will not see ads claiming he has flip-flopped. Those ads will be rampant for Rudy Giuliani, Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson.
Furthermore, two of those front-runners won't sign the pledge from Grover Norquist -- the president of Americans for Tax Reform who is infamous for his strong-arm tactics with candidates and lobbyists -- to not raise taxes. It is
for some conservative voters.
I spoke to Jesse Burton, Paul's communications director. He believes Paul's message resounds with the base of conservative voters. The Paul campaign plans to continue using every available means to reach out, including old-school TV spots -- including prior appearances on
Real Time With Bill Maher
The Daily Show
The Colbert Report
-- and newer electronic methods of networking on the Internet, such as Eventful.com, where he has been in high demand.
Paul's campaign does have something working for it. Many conservative voters remain unaware of the social positions of the front-runners, which may present a hurdle for them. A significant number of GOP voters are also undecided, as in New Hampshire, where the number is 57% undecided. Conservative defectors and the undecided voters will be looking to support a candidate as the primaries loom larger. It is possible they might move toward Ron Paul.
Paul did start a controversy during one of the GOP debates, which led to some
. He stated: "They attack us because we've been over there; we have been bombing in Iraq for 10 years." Giuliani retorted immediately by calling it an "extraordinary statement" and saying, "I don't think I've heard that before."
Others followed, including Paul Anuzis, GOP chairman of Michigan, who called him "out of whack." Anuzis threatened to start a petition with Republican National Committee to have Paul barred from further GOP debates. It never materialized. The reaction demonstrates how hard it is to have real debate on Iraq.Rep. Paul has a long way to go. He sits at a lowly position in the polls and has been less charismatic than former Gov. Mike Huckabee. I may be "out of whack" for suggesting Rep. Paul has a chance, but I enjoy his genuine character.
One other lesson from history, Rep. Paul and other potential long shots, may want to consider. Long shot candidates who become President often lack the political gravitas for re-election. Carter was defeated by Reagan in 1980, while Pierce has the distinction as the nation's only sitting president to lose the re-nomination of his party.