San Diego Union Tribune

February 20, 2007


Hunter not 1st House member to seek presidency

But most should have spared themselves effort

By Dana Wilkie
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON – Morris Udall. Dick Gephardt. John Kasich. Bob Dornan. Jack Kemp. James Garfield. Dennis Kucinich.

What these gentlemen have in common – other than having all served in the House of Representatives – is that each ran for the White House while he was still a congressman. Only one of them made it.

Morris Udall

 

 

Dick Gephardt

 

 

John Kasich

 

 

Bob Dornan

 

 

Jack Kemp

 

 

James Garfield

 

 

Dennis Kucinich

 

 

Duncan Hunter

 

 

And he got shot.

Now that Duncan Hunter has taken the plunge for the Republican presidential nomination official, the Alpine congressman may soon encounter the peculiar challenges that face a sitting House member who wants to be president.

“Many House members feel the urge (to run) in spite of their public invisibility, lack of national stature and limited access to campaign funds,” said Thomas Mann, a presidential campaign scholar at the Brookings Institution. “History suggests they should resist.”

Be certain that Hunter, a former House Armed Services Committee chairman, has thought of all this. But he's betting that his conservative stands on defense matters, international trade and border enforcement will distinguish him from other Republican candidates now hogging the headlines, including a Sept. 11 hero (former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani) and a war hero (Arizona Sen. John McCain).

Plenty of sitting House members have aimed for the Oval office, some more successfully than others.

Morris Udall, the Democratic congressman from Arizona, may have run the most credible campaign in recent decades: He narrowly lost to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential primaries. Experts attribute his success in part to his stature in the House, his famous sense of humor and his engaging, self-deprecating manner.

“He didn't come across as either arrogant or as a lightweight,” said David Rhode, a political science professor at Duke University. “He was a skilled politician, but he wasn't too full of himself. With just a little more luck, he might have been president.”

Having clout in the House offers no guarantee. Most people have probably heard of Richard Gephardt, the former House Democratic leader who tried twice to win his party's nomination. He was widely respected in Congress, had strong ties to key party constituencies and performed well in debates, but lost the nominations in 1988 and 2004.

The only sitting House member ever to win the presidency was James Garfield. Back in 1880, he was the Republican leader of the House, in a day when candidates were chosen within the party. Garfield became the dark-horse candidate when the Republican convention became deadlocked, and he won the White House in 1881.

Two months after his inauguration, he was assassinated by a disgruntled lawyer in a Washington, D.C., train station. Since Garfield's time, the nominating process has become public and the financial demands are enormous, requiring candidates to lure early “seed” money that might give their campaigns stature. While Hunter raised more than $1 million for each of his last two congressional campaigns, being little known outside his district will make it difficult to attract the $50 million to $100 million each presidential candidate may need to be a serious contender.

“Money is very important in the year before the primary, because it's used to judge the viability of a candidate,” said Stephen Wayne, a presidential scholar at Georgetown University. “He's going to have a tough time, because financial backers like to get behind people who have a chance.”

John Anderson, an Illinois congressman who ran for the Republican nomination in 1980, was in a situation that resembles Hunter's, experts say. But although only a third-tier candidate, he ran second to George Bush Sr. in the Massachusetts primary and second to Ronald Reagan in Vermont. Overnight, he became a household name, though he could not maintain his momentum in later primary states. In the general election, he ran as an independent against Reagan and then-President Jimmy Carter, taking 7 percent of the national vote.

Anderson's presidential campaign spokesman, Mark Bisnow, attributed Anderson's initial success to the campaign's media focus in early-voting states and to worry among conservatives about Reagan's movie-actor status.

“Even though he was one of the most respected congressmen of his day, a person of towering integrity, as articulate as they come and very moderate, nobody knew him outside Washington,” said Bisnow, who wrote a book about the campaign titled “Diary of a Dark Horse.”

“All the attention was showered on the people who were already well-known.”

The list of House members who sought the presidency goes on. There was Jack Kemp, the New York Republican winnowed out during early primary voting in 1988; Bob Dornan, the Orange County Republican who made a brief bid for the nomination in 1994; John Kasich, the Ohio Republican who faced a dozen primary candidates in 2000; and Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio Democrat who placed far behind in almost all primary states in 2004.

Kucinich is running again and he believes national stature will matter less in the 2008 election than in the past.

“This goes beyond your rank in the political firmament,” he said. “This election is going to be about the war, and anyone who wants to be president will have to explain why they voted for the war.”

One thing that dark horses have going for them is that no one expects them to do well. It helps, Wayne said, if such a candidate “can do something in the beginning – like raising lots of money or performing well in New Hampshire or Iowa – something that makes the media and activists say, 'Wow, this person has really surprised us.' ”

“It happened with Jimmy Carter,” Wayne said. “And it happened with Bill Clinton.”

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