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DODD SEEN AS `IN PLAY' ; THE BUZZ IS RISING ABOUT PRESIDENTIAL RUN
Mar 17, 2002 - Hartford Courant Author(s): David Lightman; Washington Bureau Chief
Chris Dodd's toe is in the murky presidential water. No doubt about it.
"He's in play," said Richard A. Harpootlian, chairman of the Democratic Party in this crucial 2004 presidential primary state -- where the Connecticut Democrat is spending his weekend.
Officially, Dodd said Saturday "I'm talking to myself" about whether to run for president in 2004.
But the conversation is expanding. Dodd's visit to South Carolina began Friday night with a private dinner with two top Democrats and a brief talk to activists at a local political fund-raiser.
Saturday, he met with Gov. Jim Hodges and today speaks at a popular Charleston church that Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., regularly attends.
Hodges, who met with Dodd for 35 minutes at a downtown hotel Saturday night, asked the senator if he was running. "I said I hadn't made a decision," Dodd said. "I said I haven't finished talking to myself."
Next month, Dodd heads to another key state when he appears at the Florida Democratic convention, a widely watched weekend that will also feature visits by former Vice President Al Gore, Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and other potential rivals.
Rivals, that is, if Dodd runs.
The current status of Dodd's thinking is this: He's considering a presidential bid, and because of his resume, his stature within the party and his ability to wow crowds, the media and political insiders are taking him seriously.
At the same time, Dodd is doing none of the things Lieberman and others are doing: He is raising no money, hiring no consultants and in fact is taking pains to avoid promoting himself as a contender.
His visit to South Carolina, for instance, is largely a series of private events; when party leaders trumpeted a Dodd appearance at the same local convention Saturday as House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt, Dodd quickly said he was not coming.
But make no mistake. Dodd agreed Saturday he is in the game, or at least in the dugout. He is a shrewd-enough politician to know that simply by leaving his name on the insiders' list, he will be seen as exploring a bid. And visiting South Carolina is far different than visiting, say, Vermont or Oregon.
"We're an early primary state, and he wants to take advantage of meeting all the people he can meet," Harpootlian said. "He knows it will help him determine what the sense of South Carolina is and how he fits into that.
"It will help him make his decision."
The Best of Times
Dodd is still a relative newlywed, and a father since September. After 21 years in the Senate, he is a gray-haired eminence at 57, the chairman of a major committee, the leader in the fight for election and campaign finance reform. He is almost beloved among his Senate peers, the son of a man once censured who brought redemption, if not honor, to the family name and, in many ways, to the institution itself.
So well-regarded is Dodd that in 1994, his last-minute bid for Democratic leader came one vote shy of beating Tom Daschle, who had campaigned for the job for years.
Predictably, when other senators hear that Dodd is considering a presidential run, they beam. "Oh, he's good, real good," said Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., instinctively.
Dodd's resume instantly makes him a challenger to be reckoned with. He has written major legislation -- parental leave, election reform, securities reform, and more. He has proven he can raise lots of money and rally crowds around the country, thanks to his 1995-96 stint as Democratic party general chairman. He has a national reputation as a crowd-pleaser and quipster, a rare modern practitioner of the old politics of joy.
With all that going for him, Dodd may feel at this stage of the 2004 race he does not need to amble through the South Carolina low country or its Bible Belt to prove himself a serious contender. What he needs to do is show up and listen to the local pols and schmooze with Hollings and the governor and Clyburn -- like he's doing this weekend.
And because Dodd realizes this could be his last realistic chance to run, he sees no need to act quickly.
"I'm thinking about it. I haven't done anything beyond that," he says.
South Carolina, he says, is no big deal; he was heading here at Hollings' request and added a few private stops to help out political friends. The Florida appearance is an effort to help the state party woo Hispanic voters.
"People are connecting too many dots," Dodd says.
In South Carolina
But there's a series of dots that are hard to connect, and it shows the limits of a potential Dodd candidacy. Tight organization and long-term planning have never been his strong points, and what should have been a routine, pleasant visit here this weekend turned into a logistical mess.
Early in the week, state officials touted Dodd's appearance. Charleston attorney Waring S. Howe Jr., a top local party official, said on Monday that Dodd would be shaking hands Saturday at a barbecue for city Democrats and then speaking at the local party convention.
The Charleston Post and Courier ran an item about Dodd's appearance, saying it was confirmed. County Democratic Chairman Diane Aghapour explained it was the state's presidential primary that was attracting Dodd and Gephardt so early in the 2004 cycle.
Untrue said Dodd on Tuesday, when questioned by The Courant about the presidential aspect. "We always ask if we could be of any help," he said, explaining he offered to aid U.S. Senate candidate Alex Sanders.
The next day, Howe said, Dodd's office informed the local party he would not appear at the convention.
Dodd began his trip here with a dinner Friday at the tony Peninsula Grill with Hollings, Sanders and their wives. Later he and Gephardt met and spoke at a $1,000-a-person Democratic fund-raiser at a private home.
People said they were impressed. "I certainly felt his passion for where America ought to be going," said local activist Rick Wade. Delores Gilmer, a state Cosmetology Consumer Board member, figured Dodd was wooing presidential support.
"He's here for a reason, I figure," she said. "I liked it that his speech was short. Gephardt was long."
Dodd spent Saturday taking care of personal business, which may have been his only miscue. Delegates to the Charleston Democratic convention expected him there and Aghapour said it was "strange" he did not come.
Members of Dodd's staff explained they never committed to the convention, and any impression they did was a misunderstanding. Dodd had committed to a Saturday night Hibernian dinner -- a non- political event -- at Hollings' request. The other events with Clyburn and Hodges were added, staff members said, because Dodd typically asks if local parties need help when he visits another state.
Hodges, though, saw the visit as something more than a social call. "He called to set this up a couple of weeks ago," the governor said. "I could have some influence in the Democratic primary in this state, so it's wise for us to meet."
Their session dealt largely with issues, notably education, Indian gaming and child care. Hodges brought up the presidency and said he would be happy to show Dodd the state if necessary.
While acknowledging he appreciated the offer, Dodd insisted "I really just called to see if they needed anything. Since I've been a senator, I've always [done] that."
His visit here, he said, is not some subterranean effort to test presidential waters.
"First you have to decide whether you even want to run. Then you can get tactical," he said.
There are two obvious questions lurking: Does he want the media to dredge up the old stories such as his active social life in the 1980s and charges of questionable party fund-raising in the 1990s? "That's involved in the decision," he says.
Is he concerned about causing a major state rift by running against Lieberman? "Joe and I are very, very good friends," Dodd says. "I'm not concerned about that [a rift] occurring."
Lieberman is equally judicious about the prospect. "He and I joke about it. He's got a right to consider it," says Lieberman, who is off and running and appearing in New Hampshire today and Monday. "Let's see what happens."
And then there's the family. "With that lovely little child at home, he'd be crazy to do it," said Rep. Rob Simmons, R-2nd District.
Dodd just gives the same answer to all questions.
"I said I'm thinking about it."
What makes someone who seemingly has it all want more?
Like people everywhere, they look at the boss and think they can do better.
"You develop these national constituencies on issues. You hear from people all over the country and you think, why not," said Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., who briefly ran in 2000.
It becomes a magnificent obsession. You're a major committee chairman, wooed by lobbyists who beg for a minute of your time, surrounded by Washington media willing to chase you down halls to get a cherished sentence, feted as the head table guest at dinners and surrounded by the famous and the brilliant at receptions.
"You think to yourself, 'I'm dealing with the same full range of issues every day that a president does'," said Lieberman. And said Smith, "you also say to yourself, 'I have plenty of experience dealing with the media.'"
What people fail to realize, said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is that life is different outside Washington. The world does not play by the gentlemen's rules of Congress; in Connecticut and New Hampshire and all those other places, the distinguished senator is simply another middle-aged guy in a suit. The reporters who clamored in corridors for quotes about energy suddenly want to know about a 1985 land deal or a 1975 girlfriend.
The candidate also finds the gentility that marks Washington discourse evaporates outside the Beltway.
So does the respect for the kind of backroom skills that make Dodd a master of compromise. He has built his legislative reputation on an ability to find common ground among politicians with little in common.
But on the presidential trail, what resonates are zingers, barbs and a knack for saying things succinctly. Nuance is deadly stuff at a high school auditorium or debates with one-minute rebuttals. Maybe that's why the last sitting member of Congress elected president was John F. Kennedy 42 years ago.
Some think Dodd can overcome these problems. "There's a fighting spirit about him," said Bruce Newman, professor of marketing at DePaul University.
Democrats fondly remember his chairmanship days, how his lively speeches and love of flesh-pressing made him a hit wherever he went. "People were really impressed with him," said Bob Poe, Florida Democratic chairman, who is eager to have Dodd address Latino audiences in Florida next month.
Yet Dodd is hardly a shoo-in to even make the top tier of candidates. He starts with at least one image problem. "Voters don't know much about him at all," said Harpootlian. "He can come off as rather regional."
Dodd's New England accent, his close ties to the Kennedy family, and the very fact that he's from Connecticut, regarded outside the Northeast as a liberal state, could hamstring him.
"Dodd's a non-starter down here," said Merle Black, professor of government at Emory University in Atlanta and a leading expert on southern politics.
Dodd-watchers would rather compare his quest with McCain's in 2000, which eschewed the early rituals candidates must endure and made him a media favorite. Dodd has the same kind of personal charm and ability to act naturally in a media crowd.
Remember, said pollster John Zogby, every presidential race in recent years has featured someone coming out of nowhere, someone who bucks convention and offers a refreshing alternative. Paul Tsongas and Ross Perot filled that role in 1992, Gary Hart in 1984, John Anderson in 1980.
But here too, there is potential trouble. As Zogby noted, McCain, and to some degree Tsongas, Hart and Anderson had appeal because they were a vehicle for voters angry with the party establishment.
Dodd is hardly a party maverick.
There's another problem: None of those guys won. The guys who did began organizing early, raised lots of money, and spent lots of time running hard in places like South Carolin
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