Thursday, August 17, 2006

Where's the buzz? 100 days until Bayh's big announcement

Where's the buzz?
100 days until Bayh's big announcement

For Howey Political Report Aug. 17, 2006

For the past year or so Evan Bayh has bounced non-stop around the country like a senatorial version of the Energizer Bunny.

He's visited 24 states at least once and some, like New Hampshire, several times. Earlier this week Indiana's former governor made his fifth appearance in Iowa for 2006, this time to tout his renewable energy plan among state fair goers, attend a series of fundraisers and appear at a "Wake Up Wal-Mart" press conference in Cedar Rapids.

Afterward he was slated to begin a much overdue two-week vacation with Susan and the twins. Hope he has plenty of time to rest and recharge: Only about 100 days remain before Thanksgiving when the senator is expected to announce he will indeed make a run for the White House in 2008.

So far Bayh and his supporters have spent millions of dollars and dedicated thousands of hours to develop a presidential-grade campaign organization. As previously noted on these pages, several respected analysts have been impressed with the resulting infrastructure. But some, like Chuck Todd of National Journal, hedge their praise with questions about the Bayh persona.

"...Bayh has to find a base-rousing issue that he can call his own," Todd wrote in an article ranking the 2008 Democratic contenders. Bayh was listed as fourth, behind Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Mark Warner. "Maybe it'll come from his union friends, or show up as a radical (but practical) health insurance proposal. Will it be enough to differentiate him from the top three?"

Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post political blog, The Fix, is among Bayh's most influential supporters in the media. He repeatedly ranks the senator among the five Democrats most likely to win the party's presidential nomination. In a recent article the pundit noted the value of the senator's organizational strength in Iowa, but concluded with this paragraph:

"Bayh's biggest hurdle is his perceived charisma deficit. In his speech yesterday Bayh was competent and engaging but not inspiring or overwhelming. His advisers say - and we agree - that he has made progress in his speaking and stump skills, but much work remains to be done. The question is whether Bayh's low-key charisma will hurt his ability to generate a spark in Iowa."

Well-paid reporters aren't the only ones to wonder if and when a Bayh campaign will be able to create that spark, a buzz, some sort of sizzle that will positively sear his name in the voter consciousness. Naysayers at either fringe eagerly cite lack of such as evidence when proclaiming Bayh's centrist brand will fail. Even some friends are worried - just two weeks ago this writer sat down with an outright Bayh fanatic at an ice cream shop south of Indy who asked much the same question.

But these things must be handled delicately. It's all a matter of timing: The next Iowa presidential caucuses are 15 months out. Peak too soon in today's broadband world and you're a has-been by the end of the week. Too late and you're a never-was. Bayh's competitors are a smart bunch with a variety of assets. Hillary is popular, Edwards portrays charm, John Kerry has name recognition, even Warner emits a neophyte appeal. Bayh faces the seemingly indomitable task of piercing through the media clutter inspired by current events and the rest of the field. His campaign must effectively deliver an incisive message to convince a good number of persuadable moderates that this Hoosier is the real deal.

Supporters may find comfort in the innovative organizational plan implemented last week with Bayh's send-off of 50 paid and trained staffers to the key states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and Indiana. And, the senator has demonstrated he knows how to stay on message. He repeatedly touts the substance of a successful public career - a former red-state governor, author of a viable energy proposal, smart and tough on security, possesses labor and education credentials, and so on. Again and again, in speech after speech, the senator pounds home these achievements. Any one or combination of events, aided by dumb luck or abetted by extensive foresight and hard work, could create the right setting for Bayh's grand entrance into - or exit from - the country's political psyche.

Evan Bayh was born to politics. He has a significant record as governor and senator. He demonstrates a winning work ethic. He's assembled a staff considered by many to be among the best. He's in the top tier in fundraising. He has a following, and it's growing. Everything is in place for a hard charge at the tape, but sooner or later Bayh must seize our attention, if only for a moment to demonstrate he possesses the ability to inspire and motivate and lead the nation through the good and bad that lay ahead. If he doesn't another candidate certainly will and Bayh's moment will be gone, possibly forever.


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