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Evan Bayh's Pitch Down the Middle

Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.) yesterday touted himself as a voice for the middle class in a pair of speeches, delivering a message intended to distinguish himself from the crowded field of Democrats considering a presidential run in 2008.

Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana
Sen. Bayh gives his address Monday at the National Press Club in Washington. (AP Photo)

"We may consider ourselves the party of the middle class, but too many middle class americans no longer consider us their party," said Bayh. "They have left the Democratic Party in droves -- costing us the last two presidential elections and the last six congressional elections, and, if we don't learn some lessons, we'll lose in 2006 and 2008 too."

Implicit in Bayh's remarks was a criticism of Al Gore's "people vs. the powerful" message during the 2000 campaign and the poverty focus adopted by John Edwards following the Kerry-Edwards defeat in 2004. Bayh sought to downplay any rivalries between himself and the two men, however, praising Edwards for his work on the issue of poverty and refusing to "Monday morning quarterback Al Gore's strategy."

But Bayh made clear that he views his party's traditional focus on helping the poorest Americans as only part of a winning strategy. "We need to appeal as much to [middle class voters'] aspirations as their anxieties," said Bayh. "Too often we are seen as doing one or the other."

Emphasizing the 2008 implications of his address, Bayh delivered it in Washington in the morning, then flew to Des Moines to do give it again in the afternoon. A number of his top campaign strategists -- including media consultant Anita Dunn and deputy chief of staff Linda Moore Forbes -- were in the crowd for the D.C. speech. Dunn also traveled with Bayh to the John and Mary Pappajohn Education Center in Des Moines for the second speech.

Bayh's strategists privately acknowledged that yesterday's address was aimed at least in part at helping him break out of the pack of presidential candidates. Bayh, however, downplayed his low single-digit showing in a recent survey of likely Iowa caucusgoers, pointing out that at this time four years ago Joe Lieberman led Iowa polling and Edwards was nothing more than a blip on the radar screen (Lieberman wound up skipping Iowa while Edwards placed a strong second). "There is something liberating about being an underdog," Bayh joked. "I think we have managed our expectations very nicely."

As The Fix has noted before, however, comparisons to the 2004 Iowa caucuses may not work. In the 2004 race most of the so-called "top tier" candidates muddled through 2003 in the single-digits in Iowa; most voters remained undecided last cycle about a field that boasted no one with a major national profile.

By comparison, the 2008 the field could likely include three people with strong national name recognition -- Edwards, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Kerry. Also likely to run is Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, meaning that Iowa voters will have four well-known candidates to choose from, meaning the number of truly undecided voters could be considerably lower in 2008. The Des Moines Register poll bears that out to some extent; Kerry, Clinton, Vilsack and Edwards received double-digit support in its recent survey.

All that said, Bayh has real potential as a presidential candidate. Most importantly, he is one of three candidates (Kerry and Clinton are the other two) who have the potential to transfer $10 million or more to a presidential account. Bayh raised $748,000 for his Senate campaign committee from April 1 to June 30 and ended the period with $10.4 million on hand.

Bayh also continues to raise cash into his All America leadership PAC, which is being used to make contributions to candidates around the country, fund Bayh's political travel and finance a staff training effort known as Camp Bayh. All America raised $863,000 in the last three months and ended June with $1.3 million in the bank.

Bayh has also shown a keen understanding of the Iowa caucus electorate, making sure to spend multiple days in the state during each of his trips rather than simply flying in and out in a single day. Bayh has also begun to use the geographic proximity of Indiana and Iowa to his benefit, telling Hawkeye State audiences during his most recent visit that "when I travel around your state, it's just a lot like being home."

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.

Read The Fix's insider interview with Sen. Bayh.

By Chris Cillizza  |  July 18, 2006; 3:20 PM ET
Categories:  Democratic Party , Eye on 2008  
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