What Happens to the Losing Team?

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HILLARY CLINTON Though a polarizing figure nationwide, the New York Senator is popular in the party

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If there's a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party, predicts Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, a moderate advocacy group, it won't be the usual skirmish between the liberals and moderates of the professional political class in Washington but one between the Washington insiders on one side and the rank-and-file activists spread out across the country on the other. "What's changed over the past two years is that activist Democrats believe that Republicans are venal people," says Rosenberg. These activists "are going to be very intolerant of Democrats in Washington who cooperate with the Republicans. There's going to be tremendous pressure to stand up and fight and not roll over and play dead."

If Rosenberg is right, it could mean that when it comes to partisan acrimony, Bush's first term will be remembered as a period of relative harmony compared with his second. In that kind of environment, anyone hoping to contend for leadership of the Democrats and the 2008 nomination will be under pressure to clash early and often with both Bush and the G.O.P.-controlled Congress. The result could be something very close to a four-year campaign for the presidency.

Already, potential candidates for 2008 are being handicapped. Kerry could argue that he deserves another chance, but not since they renominated Adlai Stevenson in 1956 have the Democrats thought—mistakenly, in Stevenson's case—that they could make a winner out of the previous election's runner-up. Early attention will be focused squarely on New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. "If she wants to run, she will completely dominate the field," predicts Podesta, who admits, as a veteran of the Clinton White House, that he may not be totally objective. "In terms of fund raising, charisma, ideas and positioning, she dominates." Donna Brazile, Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000, agrees. "There will be John Edwards' band of friends, but in this party, the Clintons have the juice," says Brazile. More than any other potential candidate, she adds, Senator Clinton transcends the party's ideological fault lines and the battle between its insiders and outsiders. "She's acceptable to everyone," Brazile says. "The moderate wing likes her; the liberals like her. There's no question, Hillary's the person people will focus on."

Some of the Clintons' closest advisers predict she will run. They also say her husband is, if anything, more enthusiastic about the idea than she is. The first hint of her intentions may come Nov. 8, when she speaks to the board of the Brookings Institution, a leading Washington think tank. But her candidacy is not guaranteed. Clinton could face a formidable opponent when she comes up for re-election to the Senate in two years: both Governor George Pataki and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani are said to be considering a challenge. A loss would effectively terminate Clinton's presidential prospects. But even if she were to win, such a campaign would be a mammoth distraction and a serious drain on resources she would need for a presidential run. "In the end, I think she beats Pataki or Giuliani, but it's two years of struggle," says Podesta.

And while the name Clinton may send Democratic true believers into states of political rapture, both husband and wife remain highly polarizing figures among the broader electorate. "Democrats have a problem with middle-to-low-income voters who are culturally conservative," says Teixeira. "I think Hillary still annoys them." Few things could excite the passions of the "vast right-wing conspiracy"—as Clinton once called her husband's enemies—or motivate the Republican base more than the prospect of a President Hillary Clinton. "I'm one of the few in the semi-inner circle who don't think she can win," says Ickes, a close Clinton ally who was deputy chief of staff to her husband in his first term. "It would be a brutal, bruising fight. It would make this year's race look like kindergarten."

Despite her name, Hillary Clinton might not be the most Clintonesque candidate in the race for the nomination. That distinction would belong to Edwards if he runs, as many Democratic insiders assume he will. Supporters of Kerry's running mate are quick to point out that the only Democrats to win the White House in the past 44 years—Clinton, Carter and Johnson—were Southerners. They also like to compare Edwards' skills on the stump and in front of a camera with President Clinton's. But it's not clear that running for Vice President helped Edwards, whose presence on the ticket did nothing to break the G.O.P.'s stranglehold on the South.

For Democratic activists tired of Washington insiders, Dean remains an option. His bid for the nomination helped spark the activism that transformed the party and revolutionized the way Democrats raise money. "Dean needs a serious image makeover," says Jim Jordan, who helped run two of the pro-Democratic independent groups that aired ads and organized massive get-out-the-vote campaigns across the country. "But he also has a serious constituency out there with a lot of energy. He'll be a power."

If Democrats want a fresh face and a candidate who can't be tagged as a liberal, they could turn to Indiana Senator Evan Bayh. A former Governor who consistently wins in a heavily Republican state, Bayh is a centrist's dream on paper. But after Kerry's defeat, Democrats may want to steer clear of nominating another Senator, even a former one like Edwards. After all, no member of Congress has won the White House since 1960. Governors have fared much better. For that reason, expect New Mexico's Bill Richardson, Iowa's Tom Vilsack and Pennsylvania's Ed Rendell to hit the party speaking circuit to gauge support. Other possibilities include Governors Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas. With the exception of Rendell, all these potential candidates come with a built-in regional advantage: they can't be labeled Northeastern liberals.

No matter who emerges as the next leader of the Democratic Party, he or she will be under tremendous pressure to take the fight to the G.O.P., and to win. The Democrats have now lost five of the past seven presidential elections and seven of the past 10. Over the past 30 years, the party has seen its majorities in Congress, in Governor's mansions and in state legislatures all disappear. For the first time since the 1920s, more Americans identify themselves as Republicans than as Democrats. Which means that losing again in 2008 wouldn't just be disappointing for the Democrats. It could leave the party in the wilderness for many years.

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