WASHINGTON — The presidential election of 2000 was one of the low points of modern U.S. politics. But the upcoming 2004 nomination contests have the potential to be exciting. Either or both conventions could be electrifying affairs.
Democrats may have the first multi-ballot convention since 1952, which could be a disaster or an unexpected opportunity. Republicans, who set their convention in New York City so President Bush could return to the scene of his apparent post-9/11 political triumph, might find Manhattan circa 2004 a much less friendly international stage. There may be more FBI agents and uniformed military people in town than visiting politicians.
When Democratic delegates head to Boston for their late July convention, they might not have an obvious nominee. This possibility flies in the face of the party's record of the last three decades. Each time, the leading contender who won the bulk of the primaries won the nomination -- on the first ballot.
In 2004, if no candidate breaks away from the pack early and clearly, Balkanization could set in, because too many convention delegates might be selected too quickly. By mid-March, with two-thirds of the delegates already chosen, you could have an incipient stalemate, with Howard Dean holding 28% of them, Dick Gephardt 22%, John Kerry 16%, Wesley Clark 12%, John Edwards 8%, Joe Lieberman 7% and Al Sharpton 5%.
Historically, this would augur ill for the Democrats. Since World War I, they have lost all four elections in which they chose a dark-horse compromise candidate after embarrassingly long bickering (more than 40 ballots in 1920, more than 100 in 1924) or later picked a nominee who had not run in the early primaries (Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and Hubert Humphrey in 1968). At first blush, doing so again in 2004 would look dumb.
However, should Dean or someone else lead with a delegate count below or around 30% through March, that probably wouldn't be enough to command the nomination. To win, the early leader would have to politick heavily enough and persuasively enough in the spring to gather 38% to 40% of the delegates by May or June.
Hence, the wisdom of Dean and Kerry to forgo the public financing system for the primary period. Either would need more money than the system would allow to stay in high gear during April and May. Reaching 40% of the delegate count without that extra money might be impossible.
The new context is that it could be good for Democrats to have the intraparty race remain active and full of Bush-blistering right up through the July convention. That would allow them to stay on message against the White House and the GOP. Should the Democratic primaries yield a winner by March, however, public interest could subside, leaving the probable nominee underfunded and lacking the wherewithal to be heard for four months while the White House and the Republicans, spending hundreds of millions of privately raised dollars, controlled the debate.
An encouraging Democratic scenario could include Dean wrapping up the nomination in May or June, gaining battle experience and the momentum of a winner without the GOP having been able to negatively define him with megabuck advertising. Instead, a Democratic drumbeat and Bush indictment could flourish.
A second intriguing convention scenario could be a Democratic race in which Dean can't climb above 32% or 33% of the delegates but slowly raises his political appeal to come close in head-to-head trial heats with Bush. Under these circumstances, it is possible to imagine a Democratic convention turning to an increasingly feisty Al Gore to avenge the "stolen" election of 2000, with Dean as the candidate for vice president. Having Dean in the running-mate slot would probably head off any Nader-type third party.
Let me stipulate: Gore's ineffectiveness during the Florida recount and its aftermath added to the public's negative impression of him, influencing the former vice president to stay out of the 2004 race. However, should voters sour further on Bush, they could warm to a hard-hitting Gore seeking revenge for the way his 530,000-vote popular margin was sloughed off by a 5-4 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. When another Tennessean, Andrew Jackson, was counted out by the House of Representatives after winning the popular vote over John Quincy Adams in 1824, he came back four years later and shellacked Adams.
Interesting as these scenarios may be, they are patently speculative. Gore has never shown much resemblance to Jackson, while a bitter, drawn-out Democratic race could simply yield another November fumble. After all, over more than three decades, losing, not winning, has become the Democratic norm.