Ever worked on a losing political campaign? I have. In fact, I've worked for and supported many candidates that I understood would never win. I knew they did not have the money, the political support or even the message to appeal to more than a handful of people. But I wanted to stand up and support someone who could stir things up. The Rev. Jesse Jackson (who ran for president in both 1984 and 1988), would never make it to the finish line or hold public office, but I liked his unique message of hope and opportunity for all.
For those of us paying attention to the 2008 race for the presidency, there are plenty of loser (or second- and third-tier) candidates to fall in love with — not because they have a chance to win but because they are interesting and can say things and raise issues that the frontrunners simply cannot. In our two-party system, they can be the voice that widens the debate, and they all deserve to be heard before they are booted out of the presidential primaries. First, let's check in with the Democrats.
I have nothing but admiration and respect for Rep. Dennis Kucinich from Ohio. In a field of white noise, he is often the sole voice of substance and principle, however unpopular (and it is often unpopular). Usually that voice doesn't get heard, and this presidential race is no different. Kucinich's plans for health care, the war in Iraq, education, the environment, the economy and immigration get lost in the din of the 24-hour news cycle, 21 of which appear to be devoted to Paris Hilton and her panty-flashing contemporaries.
If experience really mattered, then we would all be behind the longshot candidacy of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. After all, Richardson has been nominated multiple times for a Nobel Peace Prize! He negotiated the release of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek from the Sudanese government. He's been a cabinet officer and even a member of Congress. In 2006, he was re-elected with 70 percent of the vote, including 40 percent of the Republican vote. He's not alone in the experience column. There's also the former chair of the Democratic National Committee.
Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut comes from a long tradition of public service. Dodd was a member of the Peace Corps, building a school and maternity clinic in the Dominican Republic before signing up for the Army Reserve. Now in his fifth term, no one can quibble with his experience. He is an accomplished legislator and recipient of the "Senator of the Decade" award from the National Head Start Association for his demonstrated commitment to children and education. And just recently, he proposed a program to enlist youth into public service.
These candidates are only a sampling of those relegated to "second-tier" status on the Democratic side. There are more, and when they all gather on the same stage to debate, I'm surprised because I realize I've forgotten about half of them. Watching the debates, I'm always mildly surprised when I see more than four or five podiums. It's the big hitters that get all the attention, and we forget about the rest. It's unfortunate because in this case, "the rest" includes some quality legislators.
These men, including Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, all have lots to offer, just not a lot of time left to prove it. It doesn't look like the first-tier candidates will implode as those in the strata beneath them surely hope. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, along with Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, are playing tight games.
The candidates on the periphery are all praying for a power vacuum to suck them up to the first tier. But praying only gets you so far, and certainly not to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. It requires a rare confluence of events to propel a candidate from the back row to the front line. Former Govs. Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were both relatively anonymous on the national stage when they began their successful presidential campaigns. Neither was believed to pose a significant threat until it was too late. In both those situations, the stars aligned to usher an eloquent orator and intellectual powerhouse from the second tier into the White House. It may be more difficult this year to enter the top-tier ring given the price of admission.
We have no choice but to sit back and watch. Wait to see who will make a move or whether there will be an opening in the field that allows someone to break through. I would like to see at least one of the could-be's become a real force in this election cycle, and, as unlikely as it may be, I'm reminded that you can't have a come-from-behind victory if you don't start out behind. Underdog victories are always the best to watch, anyway.
Next up: The second-tier Republican candidates.
Donna Brazile is a political commentator on CNN, ABC and NPR, contributing columnist to Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill, and former campaign manager for Al Gore.