Nine Candidates in Search of an Audience
   by Gene Lyons

      Maybe it’s a good thing a lot more people watched the Yankees-Red Sox
melodrama on TV last week than the Democratic presidential debate sponsored
by CNN. Thanks to the miracle of videotape, I managed to see both. Staged in
Arizona, the latest production of “Nine Candidates in Search of an Audience”
showcased less the candidates’ merits than their party’s traditional inability to
discipline itself even with the most crucial presidential election in a generation

      Then over the weekend, I heard a Republican savant on the radio vending
the preposterous theory that Wesley Clark had entered the race as a “stalking
horse” for Hillary Clinton. Invoking the Hillary Monster has become the GOP’s
surest means of extracting cash from Moron-Americans who haven’t already
flung it away on RV excursions to Branson, Missouri or yielded to the pleas of
faith-healing televangelists. The Democrat party, the fellow claimed, is being run
entirely by Bill and Hillary Clinton.

       If so, here’s my advice to Chappaqua, N.Y.‘s fun couple: ditch four or five
of these jokers at once. Nine candidates isn’t a political contest, it’s a litter. With
all nine standing behind podiums in a semi-circle, the CNN exercise resembled
less a debate than a game show, with emcee Judy Woodruff preening, posing,
interrupting, scolding, and generally acting as if she--as the representative of
Washington’s celebrity press corps--were the star, and the candidates hapless
contestants to be discarded in favor of next week’s nobodies. On one or two
occasions, Woodruff actually turned her back and walked away from a
candidate giving an answer that evidently displeased her.

      Maybe the experience was good for Clark, who as a four-star general can’t
have been patronized to his face very often. But the effect was to render the entire
field rather foolish. Already diminished by the necessity of pretending what everybody
knows to be false, i.e. that all nine candidates are equally deserving of being taken
seriously in the context of a presidential race, the actual contenders risk resembling
people who take handmade signs emblazoned with network call letters to the ballpark
hoping to appear on TV. Watching Woodruff parade back and forth, I half expected
to see Howard Dean or John Kerry whip out cell phones and begin waving maniacally
to some pal in a bar who couldn’t get tickets.

      More seriously, what Bill Clinton and anybody else who qualifies as a Democratic
senior statesman needs to do is persuade the following four candidates to drop the ego
trip for the sake of the party: Dennis Kucinich, Carol Mosely-Braun, Al Sharpton and
John Edwards. Doing so publicly might become necessary. None has any chance
whatsoever to become the nominee. Their participation only distracts attention from
the candidates who do, and contributes to the air of solemn fakery that made last week’s
CNN extravaganza both tedious and faintly embarrassing. They should endorse somebody
soon and go away. Say what you will about the Republicans: it’s hard to fault their TV
production values. You’ll never see a nine candidate GOP debate.

      Now me, I’d also tell Joe Lieberman to take a hike. But only a sound drubbing at
the polls seems apt to get his attention. Meanwhile, the very real danger the party appears
to be sleepwalking into is that with almost all the Democratic primary contests concentrated
into a period of fewer than six weeks between late January and early March 2004, the strong
possibility exists of a deadlocked convention--the very problem the early primaries were set up
to avoid. Facing a well-financed and politically ruthless Republican machine, the Democrats
hoped to give their candidate an early running start.

      Besides the foreshortened primary schedule, making less efficient the normal winnowing
process as candidates like Lieberman and Edwards are forced to face political reality, two
additional factors make gridlock likely: an October 10 Gallup poll showing Clark narrowly
leading with the support of 21 percent of registered Democrats, Dean with 16 percent, Kerry
and Lieberman with 13 percent each, and Gephardt with 8 percent. The results are skewed
regionally, with the three New Englanders drawing little support in the South. (Clark leads in
all regions.) Secondly, convention delegates are selected proportionally in all fifty states to
candidates winning more than 15 percent of the votes.

      If the primaries took place simultaneously tomorrow, in short, the likelihood of any
candidate securing a majority of the 4318 delegate votes needed to secure the presidential
nomination would be small. (Of the total, 798 are “super delegates” appointed by party elders;
giving Bill Clinton, interestingly, a bigger role than the average ex-president.) Fixated upon their
ritualized starring roles in New Hampshire and Iowa, Washington media savants haven’t
grasped how rule changes may have changed the game. But come the July convention,
the nation could be in for one hell of a TV show.

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