Nine Democratic presidential candidates staged a debate in South Carolina last weekend, and few of us noticed. Which illustrates the Democrats' main dilemma as they seek someone who can defeat a popular Republican wartime president next year.
It's a daunting challenge with President Bush's popularity ratings hovering around 70 percent. Nevertheless, his father's popularity was high after the Gulf War and he managed to lose in 1992 by not paying enough attention to domestic issues, like a faltering economy.
George W. Bush, trying to avoid his father's mistakes, campaigned hard for his $500 million tax cut package last week as the Democrats offered their own $150 million proposal, which was largely ignored by national media.
So who are the Democrats' presidential contenders? In alphabetical order, they are: Howard Dean, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, Bob Graham, John Kerry, Dennis Kucinich, Joe Lieberman, Carol MoseleyDBraun and Al Sharpton.
Are you still with me? As the Associated Press reported last week, "President Bush is far ahead of the three most popular Democrats (Lieberman, Gephardt and Kerry) in head-to-head matchups even though the public has concerns about his (Bush's) economic leadership..."
In my opinion, Bush is a virtual shoo-in for reelection next year as long as Iraq doesn't fall apart and the economy doesn't get any worse. During last weekend's Democratic debate in Columbia, S.C., the nine candidates squabbled among themselves over national security, health care and the economy. One of the highlights (or low lights, depending upon your point of view) was an exchange of insults between Sen. Kerry of Massachusetts and former Gov. Dean of the People's Republic of Vermont.
Kerry had questioned Dean's fitness to be commander-in-chief after the ex-governor had opposed the Iraq war and urged big cuts in the defense budget. They're the front-runners in the Jan. 27 New Hampshire presidential primary, and Kerry will be in big trouble if he doesn't win there. In order to remain as a viable candidate, however, Dean must also do well in the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses, where former House Majority Leader Gephardt, of neighboring Missouri, is the favorite.
Meanwhile, southern senators Edwards of North Carolina and Graham of Florida will fight it out in the South Carolina primary on Feb. 3. Edwards, a former trial lawyer, has raised the most money -- a scary thought.
Overall, Sen. Lieberman of Connecticut, who was Al Gore's running mate in 2000, is in the lead; he's preferred by 29 percent of potential Democratic voters. Gephardt is second with 19 percent and Kerry is third with 14 percent. Bringing up the rear are fringe candidates Kucinich, MoseleyDBraun and Sharpton. Ohio Congressman Kucinich describes himself as a "dynamic, visionary leader ... who combines powerful activism with a spiritual sense of the interconnectedness of all living things." Good luck, Dennis.
The African-American candidates are Ms. Moseley-Braun, a former Illinois senator who was defeated for reelection after cozying-up to several African dictators, and the Rev. Sharpton, a convicted liar (which doesn't disqualify him from the presidency). Basically, Sharpton is a bombastic, self-centered racist; other than that, he's a fine fellow.
Well, that's the Democratic presidential lineup for 2004. Take your pick. If Bush falters on foreign policy and/or the economy, I could actually vote for one of these folks next year. I particularly admire Sen. Lieberman, who had the political courage to criticize our impeached former president, Bill Clinton, for lying under oath. And unlike some of his rivals, he understands the importance of defense and national security issues.
"No Democrat will be elected president in 2004 who is not strong on defense, and this (Iraq) war was a test of that strength," Lieberman declared in South Carolina. That's true of course, but it isn't what left-wing Democrats want to hear. They'd rather listen to Sharpton, who believes that "the way to move a donkey (the Democrats) is to slap the donkey ... until the donkey kicks, and we're going to kick George W. Bush out of the White House." Good luck, Reverend Al.
During the debate, Rep. Gephardt pitched his bloated national health insurance plan, which sounds like a rehash of Sen. Hillary Clinton's failed health care plan. Gephardt's proposal would repeal President Bush's tax cuts and require businesses to provide health care for their employees at a cost of more than $200 million per year. But Lieberman said he was unwilling to raise taxes to pay for health care and Edwards questioned a plan that would leave medical decisions to "big corporate America."
I thought the funniest moment of the debate was when moderator George Stephanopoulos asked the mild-mannered Lieberman if he's too nice to be president. "I'd like to come over there and strangle you, George," Lieberman replied with a straight face.
Respected New York Times columnist William Safire wrote that "Lieberman and Gephardt finished in a dead heat, with Kerry and Edwards off the pace" in this political horse race. The race has just begun, however, and we'll learn a lot more about the Democratic candidates before one of them emerges victorious by next spring. Stay tuned.
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.