Politicians invariably answer the question about presidential ambitions by saying it’s too early. Or they’re too busy to be thinking about running. Or they’re too focused on being re-elected senator or House member or governor. Don’t believe them.
While sidestepping the question, they’re often hiring consultants and visiting places like Iowa and New Hampshire.
No one has announced his or her candidacy for the White House in 2008, but there’s plenty of speculation about who might run. Of course, no potential presidential candidates let on that they’re after the top job.
Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is using the “focused on the current job” approach.
“I’m very happy being the senator from New York and I am looking forward, I hope, to win the favor of New Yorkers and be re-elected in ’06,” she said after a speech in January.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., is using the “many options of service” approach: “I’m sure other avenues of public service will be part of the equation,” he said earlier this year. “There will be a time and place for that.”
Sen. John Kerry, the Democrats’ 2004 nominee, said it’s unseemly to ask about 2008 so soon after the last election.
“It’s too early,” Kerry said. “We just finished one presidential election … and it’s nothing short of crazy to be speculating about the next presidential election.”
The key is to pick an approach and stick to it – a creative follow-up question could evoke a more informative response. Even the most skilled politician can stumble over the presidential question.
Bill Clinton bobbled it in 1990 when he ran for re-election as Arkansas governor and said that if returned to the job he would serve a full four years. By the next year, he was touring the state asking for – and receiving – permission from supporters to run for president in 1992.
The challenge for politicians is to leave the door open for a White House run without sounding too ambitious.
The pressure to be specific intensifies in the heat of a re-election campaign for Senate or governor, and White House hopefuls may drop more hints as time goes by.
“If anybody categorically says they’re not going to run, they become less interesting to the press,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a University of Pennsylvania specialist in political communications.
Some politicians don’t bother to try to quash rumors that they might run.
“One of the issues is whether saying that you’re in the running for the White House compromises your current position,” said political scientist Charles Franklin of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “For some, it doesn’t matter.”
So, for example, when Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., was asked by a TV reporter early this year if he would “rule out” running for president in 2008, he responded, “Why rule it out?”
Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., told a TV reporter during the Republican National Convention, “I’d seriously consider a presidential run if I thought the Republican Party would want, and if I thought America was looking for, a president like me.”
The classic case of a politician closing off the presidential option was the declaration by William Tecumseh Sherman: “If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve.” A leading Union general in the Civil War, Sherman resisted efforts to persuade him to run for president in 1884.
Sometimes politicians make a “Shermanesque” pledge to cut off talk about ambitions that could distract from a big new task.
For example, earlier this year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was quick to slam the door on speculation that could get in the way of her new job.
“I won’t run,” she said. “I won’t. How’s that? Is that categorical enough?”
Sometimes politicians close the door on a White House run because they’re burned out.
“If nominated, I will run to Mexico,” Morris Udall, a longtime Democratic congressman from Arizona, quipped a few years after losing in the 1976 presidential primaries. “If elected, I will fight extradition.”