The shouts and murmurs over the contested presidential election of 2000 are still ringing in our ears, however faintly. So it seems a little jarring that the 2004 contest is already underway. But sure enough, every Democratic Tom (Daschle), Dick (Gephardt), and Hairy (Al Gore, at least until he shaved that beard) who thinks he has a shot at the brass ring has saddled up on the presidential carousel.
Despite the obvious fact the nation could use a breather, if only for a short while, the race is on. Still, it’s hard to fault the contenders; New Hampshire are Iowa are only 21 months off.
The Republicans running for the White House, on the other hand, have no excuse.
What’s that, you say? Running for President? What about President Bush?
Not to worry. George W. will be the party’s nominee in 2004. What everyone else is running for is the GOP nomination … in 2008. Whether W. wins or loses reelection, the party will have to put forward someone new then. And given Dick Cheney’s statements that he has no interest in running for the job, the contest will be wide open.
The number of GOP eminences with their eyes on the prize has been steadily growing in recent months. Just this week came news that New York Governor George Pataki gave the keynote address at the annual Red, White, and Blue dinner in Manchester, New Hampshire. Pataki said his visit had “nothing to do with presidential politics.” Yeah, right. He based that claim on the notion that GWB tops the ticket in two years. He never said anything about 2008. But he didn’t have to. His presence did it for him.
Pataki has long worn his White House ambitions on his sleeve. The Guv and his people have recently put on a full-court press in Washington for the idea that Pataki should take Dick Cheney’s place on the ticket in 2004. This move, akin to moving in on the widow before the corpse cools, is as shrewd as it is tacky. It would preempt other candidates and sew up the nod for 2008. Pataki faces serious hurdles, though. After all, one would expect that if the American public were going to rally around a pro-choice Republican from New York, it would be the charismatic Rudy Giuliani, not Pataki.
Other problems abound as well, chief among them the utter foolishness of thinking Dick Cheney’s not up for another go-round. And it’s not as if Pataki is the only one trying. Before September 11, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge’s cadre of flacks and hangers-on were touting the same idea about their guy. Ridge even got a break with 9/11 when Bush offered him the Homeland Security job. One can understand why the square-headed former Marine might think he was being groomed for the Veep slot. Instead he was handed a thankless task, and hasn’t profited a whit from his move to Washington.
Since Pataki and Ridge have already forced the issue, it’s worth asking: Who else is running?
How about Attorney General John Ashcroft? Jeffrey Toobin’s recent New Yorker profile raised publicly what a lot of folks in Washington have been whispering: that Ashcroft’s ambitions aim a lot higher than the Department of Justice. Toobin quoted Senator Orrin Hatch saying to look out for Ashcroft. But what does Hatch know? Last anyone heard from him he was telling people to look out for Orrin Hatch.
The cesspool that is the United States Senate, sadly, is often a breeding ground for presidential wannabes. In 2008 it is likely to serve up Arizona’s John Kyl, a defense maven, or Tennessee’s Bill Frist, who has emerged as a health care expert because of his medical training. And then there’s John McCain, though who knows if he will even be a member of the Republican Party by the time the serious campaigning gets rolling.
Another Solon said to be running hard is Pennsylvania’s Rick Santorum, a solid, pro-life conservative who has built up an impressive résumé on issues like welfare reform and military affairs.
And what of the crop of future senators? Don’t count out the possibility of current U.S. Rep. Jim Talent (Mo.) or former St. Paul, Minnesota mayor Norm Coleman, assuming they win this fall. Another pair of possible senators — Lamar Alexander and Liddy Dole — would likely take a pass. Dole crashed and burned last time around, and Lamar’s already a two-time presidential loser. Why make it three?
My dark horse for 2008 is Bill Simon. Of course, he’s got to knock off California Governor Gray Davis this November, but that’s not impossible. Nobody likes Davis. So as long as his attempts to paint Simon as a nut fail to stick, the Republican has a good shot.
Another governor to keep in mind is Florida’s Jeb Bush. But that only works if his brother loses in 2004. Jeb always was the one the family designated as a future president, and were it not for scurrilous campaign tactics that cost him the gubernatorial race in ‘94, it might be Jeb, and not brother George, in the White House today.