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You’ll need a program to track Senate’s presidential wannabes

The Washington Post


One of the enduring notions about U.S. senators is that they’re congenitally infected with the urge to run for president. And “it can only be cured by embalming fluid,” the late Democratic Rep. Morris Udall of Arizona once said, a line often quoted by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., whose White House aspirations are far from embalmed.

The virus persists despite the well-catalogued losing streak among senators who have run: None has reached the White House since John F. Kennedy in 1960, and before JFK it was Warren G. Harding in 1920.

Yet the Senate is awash in strivers intent on running anyway, to a point where the 2008 campaign is coloring the chamber’s daily dynamic at an unusually early stage.

A full 32 months before the presidential election, at least 10 senators are entertaining bids.

That means they have traveled widely, taken interest in the well-being of state lawmakers in Iowa or, in all likelihood, cast votes and given floor speeches with an eye to presidential voters.

The presumed roster includes a former first lady (Hillary Rodham Clinton), the most recent Democratic nominee (John Kerry), the Senate majority leader (Bill Frist), repeat candidates (McCain, Joe Biden), former governors (George Allen, Evan Bayh), darlings of the left and right (Russell Feingold, Sam Brownback) and a leading GOP critic of President Bush’s Iraq policy (Chuck Hagel).

It does not include Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum, who says he is focused on his re-election campaign this year but has not ruled out ’08, win or lose in ’06.

The concentration of prospective candidates creates “a whole host of environmental changes in the Senate that weren’t there before,” says former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, who came close to a run in 2004 and is considering one in ’08. “There’s a critical mass of people whose actions are going to be interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as motivated by their desire to run for president.”

On any given day, senators are devoting a great deal of energy to “exploring” (their preferred term) campaigns for their party’s nomination in ’08.

This can take a number of forms: Biden giving a national security speech in Texas, Bayh meeting with potential donors in Hollywood or McCain hosting a “town meeting” on immigration in Florida – all of which occurred on the same day a few weeks ago.

Recently, several possible presidential candidates – including four senators – traveled to Memphis for the 2006 Southern Republican Leadership Conference to participate in a presidential straw poll.

“You have a lot of people doing things where the purpose is to get attention versus to legislate,” Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said last month in Hampstead, N.H., where he saw Frist address 300 GOP activists at a Lincoln-Reagan Day dinner, Frist’s second trip to the state in three months.

“This is going to happen anyway in the Senate,” Gregg said, “but with this many people running, it’s much more noticeable.”

The 2008 election will be the first since 1928 that won’t include an incumbent president or vice president, unless by some long shot Dick Cheney runs.

And although previous campaigns have included multiple senators – John Edwards, Bob Graham, Joe Lieberman and Kerry ran in ’04 and Biden, Daschle and Christopher Dodd considered it – analysts say it’s unlikely that so many senators of both parties have ever explored candidacies at such an early point.

“It seems unprecedented,” says Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report.

“A lot of senators are more inclined to think, ‘This thing could line up for me,’ ” Brownback says.

This is doubly true given wartime realities, which could favor the foreign policy credentials of senators as opposed to, say, the domestic orientations of governors.

Several current and just-departed governors might run in ’08 as well, although their ranks are not as numerous.

Mark Leibovich is a reporter for The Washington Post’s Style section.

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