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Jewish World Review Feb. 26, 2003 / 24 Adar I, 5763

Roger Simon

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Overconfident Dems? | Democrats are getting so confident that their 2004 presidential nominee will be something other than a punching bag or a sacrificial lamb that they are starting to recycle an old joke:

Q: Will George Bush be a one-term president? A: Yeah -- I think he'll last that long.

It has been a rough couple of weeks for Bush: Abroad, a chunk of the free world seems to think it is a toss-up between Bush and Saddam Hussein as to who is the greater threat to world peace, and at home Bush hardly seems to be the political juggernaut he once appeared to be.

(Even those reporters who worship at the feet of his political guru, Karl Rove, may be forced to admit that losing an election by 500,000 popular votes to Al Gore is not a sign of genius.)

This could all change very quickly -- a successful war, the death or capture of Osama bin Laden (remember him?) and a booming stock market would help -- but, still, Democrats sense that they have a chance.

Only one problem: They need a candidate. Scratch that: They need a winner; they have plenty of candidates.

A slew of them spoke at the Democratic National Committee meeting last week, and while it was hard to pick a winner, there seemed to be one big loser: Joe Lieberman, who is currently leading in the national polls.

As has been said many times, early polls are based almost entirely on name recognition, and so it is no surprise that Lieberman led the field in a recent national poll with 16 percent, followed by Dick Gephardt at 13 percent, John Kerry at 8 and John Edwards at 7.

Whatever their validity, these polls are helpful in raising money, and Lieberman can put together a impressive packet of them. He is expected to be at the top or near the top in terms of fund raising, and even though running for vice president is almost nothing like running for president (it is a two-month sprint with much less media scrutiny), it still gave him experience at being in a national campaign.

There is a problem, however: Even though presidential politicking is made up of many elements, public speaking is the primary one. You can have nifty issue papers, super TV commercials and a crackerjack staff working behind the scenes, but getting votes is still largely a matter of giving speeches.

Whether people access those speeches in person or via the media, they still get their impressions of candidates exactly as they have since the time the Republic began: by hearing the candidates stump.

And Lieberman suffered in comparison to the other Democratic speakers at the DNC meeting.

Lieberman was quiet, reasoned and substantive -- everything he is in real life -- but his speech did not excite or inspire. When he was done, there was applause, but the "wow" factor was near zero.

Unfortunately for him, others did wow. Dick Gephardt gave one of the best speeches he has ever given. The content was not new, but the delivery was. Gephardt has learned how to work a crowd from the podium, milking a laugh-line here, extending the cheers there and passionately gripping the front of the lectern exactly as Bill Clinton once did.

Gephardt got a couple of standing ovations (Lieberman got none), and after the speech people came forward to shake his hand and embrace him.

Gephardt was followed by Howard Dean, whose high-energy, staccato-style can bring down the house. On Friday, audience members beat their hands together and roared their approval so loudly that they sometimes drowned out Dean entirely.

It is important to remember, however, that the crowd was not made up of average citizens or even average Democrats. The audience was made up of members of the Democratic National Committee, who are politically savvy and are quite capable of roaring for one candidate and supporting another.

Why would they do that? Electability. They are not going to support the candidate who can speak best; they are going to support the candidate who has the best chance of beating George Bush.

The two qualities may be linked, however, and those candidates who claim they can win over the nation are first going to have to show they can win over an audience.

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© 2002, Creators Syndicate