Warming Up for the Presidency

Article excerpt

"The belly is warm."

Such was Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar's response to a reporter's question in 1995 as to whether he had the "fire in the belly" to run for president in 1996.

For the last 20 years, the "fire in the belly" test has become as much a part of presidential campaigning as the notion that such campaigns have become so long that they virtually never end.

Surely 1996 Republican presidential candidate Lamar Alexander proved that point with his decision to begin meeting with potential supporters in late November 1996, just weeks after Election Day, to begin planning his 2000 run.

While Alexander may take the award for class overachiever, he was followed early in 1997 by a long list of potential candidates who began the quiet dance of traveling to Iowa and New Hampshire while begging off press inquiries as to whether they would run in 2000.

As always, the national press corps is the willing coconspirator of the "permanent campaign," frequently offering a scorecard of players (in May 1997, USA Today devoted a page to profile the 18 "probable and possible" GOP 2000 candidates) and tracking their every move, in search of further proof of "candidate A's" intentions.

But if such early frenzy can ever be justified, the looming imagery of the 2000 race seems reason enough. For the first time since 1988, an incumbent president is not seeking reelection. To the uncertainty inherent in having to choose a new leader, add in the symbolism of the millennium and the "dawn of a new age" and the expected debate about who will lead America into "the next thousand years."

Given those stakes, an event such as this year's congressional midterm elections becomes an early indicator of candidate performance.

GETTING A LEG UP

As political analyst Charles Cook points out, "Under the cover of campaigning for House and Senate candidates, the midterm elections offer presidential `wanna-bes' the opportunity to meet party insiders, activists, and donors, as well as the opportunity to test their messages and get acclimated to the political styles and cultures of various states and regions."

That's why these candidates have been busy on the party lecture circuits, attending state party conventions and annual dinners as well as party fundraising events and individual candidate fund-raising events.

Magazine publisher Steve Forbes, for instance, decided to endorse GOP House candidates (e.g., Bob Kilbanks in Pennsylvania and Mike Fair in South Carolina) while they were still engaged in primary contests with other Republicans.

The rules for presidential campaigns during the congressional election year are simple. As veteran GOP stategist and campaign operative John Grotta sees them, "One, get exposure. Two, this is an opportunity to generate political IOUs, if you can do it effectively. And three, this is an opportunity for a candidate to build a `small donor' base."

Concerning the first rule, the opportunity to say "I'm here to help candidate X" is an excuse for the presidential candidate to be able to sell himself.

With the second rule, the operative question is, Can a candidate really make a difference--or the appearance of one--in a congressional or statewide race?

And rule No. 3 means a big list of contributors who may donate small dollar amounts to your campaign but who can be approached to give again and again. The geographic distribution of that donor base can be suggestive of a candidate's appeal in different regions.

At this stage, almost all the serious contenders have created their own political action committees, giving them the opportunity to contribute funds to House and Senate candidates of their choice. The PACs give the presidential hopefuls another reason to travel the country to collect and distribute funds and to make speaking appearances to test their messages on friendly audiences. …