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Longshot candidates ignore the obvious

By
June 5, 2007

Duncan Hunter says he starts his daily quests for media exposure doing interviews at "Oh-dark thirty." Joe Biden says his one disadvantage is being unable to hire his own plane. And Mike Gravel says he's relying on a proverb, "Work hard and be lucky."

The three men and a cluster of others have a common tie — all are running for president but are mired in the low, single-digit depths of early national surveys of public support. Yet all are stubbornly sticking to it, at least for now, as they await something — anything — that might vault them into contention.

"There's been other candidates who became president with less name recognition at this time of the cycle than I have," one longshot, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, said in a recent interview.

That might be questionable if taken literally, since Paul's name usually appears in polls with a 1 percent next to it, or worse yet a symbol indicating less than 1 percent support among Republicans. Still, today's single-digit hopefuls find plenty of inspiration in the recent past.

George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton were national unknowns before winning the Democratic presidential nominations in, respectively, 1972, 1976, 1988 and 1992. Carter and Clinton went from faint blips in the early polls to the White House.

"What every unknown candidate is relying on is they want to be hit by lightning," said former Rep. John Kasich, R-Ohio, who never surpassed single digits in Gallup polling in his short-lived 2000 presidential try.

That lightning can come in many forms, including for McGovern, Dukakis and Clinton, the demise of better-known rivals.

Obscure former Vermont governor Howard Dean had a brief fling with front-runner status by focusing on anti-war fervor among Democrats in 2004. Clinton adroitly judged the country's mood by casting himself as a centrist.

Dukakis, the Massachusetts governor, found an audience by taking credit for his state's bustling economy, and McGovern built his candidacy on opposing the Vietnam War. For Carter, an unknown former Georgia governor, it was being a Washington outsider and promising to tell the truth in the cynical time after Watergate.

"Jimmy Carter is the patron saint of the hopeless," Kasich said.

With about eight months and many millions in expenditures until the first nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, today's polls are little more than name recognition contests.

Yet early surveys can have real consequences for candidates. A strong showing can make it easier to raise money, garner news coverage and attract skilled campaign operatives, while registering poorly can do the opposite.

"You're sitting back in the shadows, scratching your head and saying, 'How can I, short of calling a hooker in Washington, get everybody to write about me,'" said former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., who barely broke into double digits before abandoning his 1992 presidential bid.

Early money raising by this year's candidates underscores the relationship between poll standings and finances — with one significant exception. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney raised $23 million in this year's first three months to lead the GOP pack, despite single-digit showings in most national polls.

Hunter, a GOP congressman from California, says talk radio offers a chance for little-known contenders like himself to gain exposure. Paul and Gravel, a former Democratic senator from Alaska, say the Internet and televised debates present big opportunities.

"The one thing I do know about politics is anything is possible," Gravel said.

Candidates with no real chance of winning the nomination can achieve other goals, such as becoming possible choices for vice president or the Cabinet, enhancing their visibility for a future bid for office or private careers, or influencing their party's agenda.

"I never feel badly. I feel like I give them my message, and more people respond than I ever dreamed they would," said Paul of his philosophy of limited government and individual freedom.

Many of the lower-tier 2008 hopefuls dismiss their dismal early national showings as irrelevant. They say they are focusing their resources on doing well in next winter's Iowa caucuses or New Hampshire primary, when the party nominating contests begin in earnest.

"This is all spring training, man," Biden, a Democratic senator from Delaware, said of the early polls. "When has the top tier ever had any relevance whatsoever at this stage of the game?"

Actually, it often has, particularly in the Republican Party, which has been strongly inclined toward nominating front-running candidates and incumbents in recent decades.

Part of what keeps the lower-rung hopefuls going is knowing there is plenty of time for top candidates to tumble into political oblivion.

An apparent crying incident by front-runner Sen. Edmund Muskie, D-Maine, created an opportunity for McGovern in 1972. Dukakis triumphed in 1988 after Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo., imploded following the report that he spent a night with model Donna Rice. Clinton's chance came after New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and others decided against taking on the first President Bush, whose popularity soared after the first Persian Gulf War.

In a recent interview, Dukakis said his success was based on strong organizing in key states, not luck.

"It's got nothing to do with lightning," he said. "Look, lightning may strike somebody else."