Saturday, December 16, 2006

'08 dropout watch: Why Evan Bayh is taking a bye

There’s apparently no need for Democratic voters to actually go to the polls during the 2008 presidential primary season and winnow the field of candidates – because the candidates are already winnowing themselves.

The first volunteer casualty was Mark Warner, the ex-Virginia governor who was assumed to be positioning himself as a centrist alternative to Hillary Clinton. And now, this morning, we have another casualty – Evan Bayh, the senator from red-state Indiana who was also expected to be position himself as a centrist alternative to Hillary Clinton.

This may be the shortest toe-dipping candidacy in history; just two weeks ago, Bayh announced that he was setting up his "exploratory" committee. But apparently he decided to take a bye on ’08 after realizing that he would not be able to compete for money and media buzz - not just with Hillary, but with the rapidly ascendant Barack Obama.

No doubt Bayh realized this last weekend, when he found himself stumping in New Hampshire at the same time as Obama, and drew roughly as much attention as a panhandler in midtown Manhattan.

He could probably have dealt with one rock star celebrity rival. But two? Forget about it.

From his statement today: “The odds were always going to be very long for a relatively unknown candidate like myself, a little bit like David and Goliath.” Try two Goliaths.

It has actually become common for aspiring candidates to deal themselves out long before the actual voting commences. One reason why perceived frontrunners like to amass money and resources is because their daunting assets might scare away potential competitors. Hillary Clinton is doing that now. Al Gore did that in 1999, as did George W. Bush. And Obama told the Chicago Tribune the other day that he can probably raise $60 million if he takes the plunge.

Bayh would have a hard time matching that kind of money – which is arguably unfair, because he, unlike Obama, has a long track record in elected politics, having served two terms as Indiana governor before moving to the Senate, and thereby having demonstrated great success at selling Democratic values to red state voters. But Bayh is a bland guy with a serious passion deficit, hardly the kind of persona that would fire up primary voters. That was a concern even before Obama became the flavor of the month.

And there was another big impediment, the same one that may have given Warner pause: Democratic primary voters are disproportionately liberal, whereas Bayh is a moderate who has frequently jousted in the past with the liberal wing. He voted to authorize the war in Iraq. He has also cast a lot of votes that liberals would interpret as being sops to the corporate sector (like his fealty to the credit card companies, for instance). For these reasons alone, it was hard to see how he could navigate the crucial early primaries successfully.

Which brings us to Iowa caucuses, the first pit stop on the primary trail, and another rival that has been widely overlooked amidst the media focus on Clinton and Obama. A poll in Iowa earlier this fall suggested that the favorite there right now is…John Edwards. Under the radar, he has been assiduously working the state. He, unlike Bayh, does not have a day job in the Senate, which means he is freed up to work the grassroots 24/7. He, unlike Bayh, has been moving to the left, wooing the labor groups that are crucial to the caucus process in that state. And he, unlike Bayh, is an instinctive performance artist who knows how to turn on his audience.

So maybe it was three Goliaths.

The result is that Bayh has opted for the next best thing: Waiting by the phone, during the summer of 2008, in the hopes that he wins the nod for running mate. He’ll have plenty of company.