Lots of talk about 2008

For all the talk about the here and now in Congress, the 2008 buzz was loud. With star-powered names like Obama, Clinton and McCain walking the Capitol corridors, the overtones of the next election were unmistakable as Democrats basked in their newfound control of the House and Senate.

Yet, the high-profile presidential wannabees sought to put the focus on their current jobs — rather than the one they want on Jan. 20, 2009.

“I wish everyone would take a deep breath and worry about tomorrow and the next two days and the next two weeks and the next two months instead of the next two years,” Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said Thursday after being sworn in for a second term.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., begged off questions about the timing of an official presidential announcement, saying the coming weeks would be largely devoted to Iraq policy and his new post as the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“We’re kind of focusing a lot of attention on all that right now,” he said.

And, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., punted presidential queries and emphasized the need to make progress this year on several policy areas, including energy and health care.

“A couple of issues we talked about … are on everybody’s minds. And we should come up with some reasonable solutions,” he said after Republicans and Democrats held a private meeting in the Old Senate Chamber.

Still, the 2008 chatter filled the halls. It no doubt will persist through the year, given that Congress is filled with presidential hopefuls — some political celebrities and others little-known long-shots — in the first wide-open White House race in a half-century.

Running for president from the House and Senate is extremely difficult, in part because lawmakers have voting records that can be picked apart by opponents and used to twist a candidate’s positions.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004 and a potential 2008 candidate, learned that cruel lesson when President Bush’s re-election campaign seized on the senator’s votes from his decades-long career to argue that he habitually flip-flopped on various issues. Kerry lost the race.

The last senator to win the presidency was Sen. John F. Kennedy in 1960.

No less than a half-dozen senators are hoping to buck the trend, and even a couple House members think they have a shot — admittedly very, very long shots — at the White House.

In the Senate, Clinton, the former first lady turned New York senator, and Obama, a first-termer from Illinois, are expected to run for the Democratic nomination and already rank high in popularity polls.

The spotlight was on both Thursday.

As the day began, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., greeted Obama, gave him a friendly pat, whispered with him and then guided him toward a bank of TV cameras, where the two paused briefly — a made-for-TV moment.

Later, Obama attended a Congressional Black Caucus swearing-in ceremony at the Library of Congress, where the master of ceremonies recognized Obama, the only black senator, as “the Prez.” The crowd, which murmured when Obama entered, responded with a standing ovation.

As for Clinton, she drew notice when she placed her hand on a Bible to take the oath of office for a second term after a landslide victory. Her husband, former President Clinton, beamed with pride from the gallery above — a stark reminder that the presidency could be a family thing.

The former president was peppered with questions about his wife’s aspirations when he ducked into the Senate press gallery to use the men’s room.

“Do you want to live in the White House again?”

“I would like not to talk about it today,” he said.

“Is Mrs. Clinton going to run for president?

“Ask her,” he responded.

Rounding out the Democratic hopefuls in the Senate are Joe Biden of Delaware and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, who said he’ll make a final decision in the next week or two. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, also is running, and several other Democrats outside Congress are considering it. One former senator, North Carolina’s John Edwards, announced last week.

As for the GOP, McCain — a failed GOP presidential candidate of 2000 — has formed a presidential exploratory committee in preparation for a second run. He has spent the past year putting a campaign organization in place and courting fundraisers.

On a day meant to showcase bipartisanship, McCain spent part of the morning alongside freshman Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., whose upset victory over Republican George Allen gave Democrats control of the Senate for the first time since a brief span early in President Bush’s tenure.

The two, graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy and decorated Vietnam veterans, chatted as they walked the hallways.

Absent from the festivities was Republican Sen. Sam Brownback, another presidential contender. He spent the day at home in Kansas before meeting with Republican activists in Sea Island, Ga. His upcoming travel schedule includes Iraq, Afghanistan and Ethiopia.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., also are weighing bids, as are several prominent Republicans outside of Washington.


Associated Press writers Nedra Pickler and Beth Fouhy contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press