Posted on February 15, 2007 in Washington Watch

To write this early about the 2008 race for the White House is, at best, a risky proposition. The field is so deep, the candidates so varied, and the process is so unpredictable. Predictions and even observations made at this time can easily be eclipsed by a number of developments occurring between now and the first contests in Iowa and New Hampshire in January of 2008.

There are already, ten democrats and 13 Republicans who have either announced their intentions to run or appear likely to do so.

Last weekend, I was at the Democratic National Committee meeting where all ten Democrats delivered speeches before the party’s leaders. I came away from the event with a number of reflections.

First is the fact that this is an extremely diverse field, rich in experience, presenting real choices for Democratic voters. By diversity, I don’t mean gender, race and ethnicity – although these factors do represent an exciting feature of this contest that can’t be ignored. Listening to the Democratic hopefuls, what struck me as most intriguing were the very distinctive messages and even meta-messages they conveyed.

There were, of course, some differences in how several of the key issues were addressed. But these differences were not so great that even a casual observer would not have been able to discern a consensus Democratic case for 2008: fixing the nation’s broken healthcare, education and immigration systems; rejection of the Bush administration’s unilateralism in foreign affairs in favor of a restoration of America’s diplomatic leadership in the world; and protecting the middle class and poor from the ravages of unfair tax cuts and loss of employment opportunities. Given this list of problems to be addressed, as I noted, there were some differences in the solutions proposed. But they were not as great as the candidates may attempt to project them to be, in their efforts to appeal to various segments of Democratic voters.

The real differences lay elsewhere, in fact, on a deeper level.

Ms. Clinton, for example, far and away the leader in early polling, exudes not only confidence but an aura of inevitability. After Democrats have been in exile for six years, she promises a return. Her supporters convey the message that not only can she win, but that she will win and so “get on the train now, because it’s off and running.”

Clinton touts her experience, her ability to do real politics, and her toughness in battle. She is the legacy candidate saying, “I know how to fight.” Without saying more, she reminds the faithful of both past glories and hurts.

The message she sends is clear: if you want to win and get back what we had before, I’m the one who will get you there. I know who I am, you know who I am, and you know what I can do – an evident reminder of past candidates who never quite solidified their message.

Former Senator Edwards who never stopped running after the Democratic defeat in 2004, has become a force in his own right. He targeted core Democratic issues, heightened his profile in key primary states, and built a national organization. Focusing on the highly evocative message of “two Americas,” which he first exposed to the nation during his 2004 primary campaign, he has captured support in the liberal wing of the party. Like John Kennedy, he projects powerful images of blight, poverty, the growing gap in health care, and the insecurity of America’s poor and working class, to develop a compelling message that has resonated with the Democratic faithful.

And then there is Senator Barack Obama. If John Edwards is adopting the John Kennedy persona with his “other America” theme, Obama is a latter-day Bobby Kennedy whose youthful and charismatic message of hope is bringing inspiration to a new generation of voters.

Senator Obama, initially dismissed by some as a phenomenon, appears to be the real thing. His bestselling books and his compelling speaking style have not only inspired, but conveyed wisdom and deep understanding of some of the most complex issues facing contemporary America.

Through much of his speech at last weekend’s Democratic meeting, the audience sat spellbound, captivated by his unique appeal. He did not present a litany of issues and solutions – these he promised would come later. His message was one of hope and his promise to end cynicism and “politics as usual.” The rapturous applause that greeted his conclusion made it clear that his message resonated.

These three, the current frontrunners and the most intriguing candidates to emerge, by no means exhaust the Democratic field. New Mexico’s Governor Bill Richardson and Senator Joseph Biden, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, point to their strong foreign policy credentials, so necessary to fix America’s troubled standing in the world. This is also the message of former General Wesley Clark, who has yet to declare his candidacy.

Connecticut Senator Thomas Dodd brings not only an impressive record in foreign and domestic policy, he is also a forceful speaker who, like Edwards, reaches traditional Democratic voters. Iowa’s two-term former Governor Tom Vilsack presents a steady hand and strong leadership credentials. Then there’s Senator Mike Gravel, an anti-war hero from the days of Vietnam, and Congressman Dennis Kucinich, Congress’s current leading anti-war champion. At this early stage, none of these seven have made it into double-digits in national or statewide polling, but as I said, it’s too early to write anyone out. As Richardson reminded the party faithful, “stay loose” – this race is just starting.

Domestic or international crisis can change the campaign’s dynamic, as can a candidate’s mistakes, past or present. Should former Vice President Gore make a late entrance into the campaign, the entire picture could change – and change dramatically.

Even with this, one thing is clear: Democrats have one of the richest and most diverse field of candidates as any I can recall. It will be a fascinating campaign to watch.

The Republican field is equally diverse and quite fascinating. We’ll look at that in a future article.

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