The Dems want a War Admiral, while the GOP longs for a Terminator

If Bush keeps evaporating in the polls, look for Karl to play the Rudy card.

Published October 9, 2003 10:40PM (EDT)

Arnold's win in California has unsettled political consultants everywhere. It's forced them to rethink the baggage issue. Perhaps baggage is good. Perhaps in the post-embarrassment era it's actually an asset in American public life to have survived a protracted period of hideous and shaming revelations about your private life, and still be standing after a tidal wave of trash has rolled over your head. It worked for Bill Clinton -- he's never been bigger. It works for Hillary -- she's never been better. Now look at Arnold. When it came to the vote, who did California want? The Masher or the Mushmouth? The guy who copped the feel or the guy who blew the deal?

It gives Democrats pause about Wesley Clark. He looks so perfect on paper. The four stars. The keen mind. The neat head. But where's his baggage? The great thing about having survived a media gangbang is that it quells the need to answer questions. Anything bad can be dismissed as an old story.

New York's "progressive" Democratic power players are getting frantic. Until a few months ago they were still numb from the one-two punch of 2000 and 9/11. Bush's decline in the polls jerked them awake. Their loathing of Bush has risen to such a crescendo they will take any candidate who looks like a winner. A lot of them are excited by Dean, but they're ready to ditch him the minute he looks like a loser. They don't want to dick around with noble lost causes. They don't have time for self-appointed Seabiscuits. They want a War Admiral -- and they trudge from chic little soirees for Wes Clark to gilded breakfasts for John Kerry hoping to find one.

At a "political brainstorm" supper the other night, hosted by a brand-name author who's also a Democratic activist, a bunch of West Side legends with plenty of cash to spare sat with dinner on their laps and harangued each other about the need for action. In truth, the host had convened them so he could put the arm on them on behalf of the DNC, but they wouldn't have come if he'd told them that. "Money's not the issue here," one of them thundered (to the host's chagrin). "Everyone in this room has given at least half a million bucks to the party in their time." No, they wanted to talk ideas. They wanted to talk tactics. Most of all they wanted to talk winning.

One recurring theme was the longing for a rapid-response war room to beat off Republican "disinformation." When Rush Limbaugh's OxyContin habit hit the airwaves, for instance, Democrats lacked what Republicans would have had in their shoes: a ready-to-go bullet-point list of all the times Rush had mouthed off about how drugs are all the fault of permissive liberals. "I'm happy to give money to that!" shouted a theater producer.

"We don't have a bulldog to run it!" cried a former prime-time star. "We need a bulldog!"

"Why can't we get James Carville back?" demanded a Broadway actress.

"He's doing 'K Street'," replied a screenwriter, matter-of-factly.

"Another James Carville then!" said the actress, rising restlessly to her feet and pacing the room.

"Another bulldog!" cried the prime-time star.

Al Franken has become the Democrats' messiah. His well-publicized row with Fox's bloodhound Bill O'Reilly -- as much as anything to do with Iraq -- was the magic wand that broke the Republican spell and turned Roger Ailes back into a frog. Any Manhattan dinner party you show up at these days feels like a Franken publishing party, with a pile of "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them" sitting on the hall table as a shiny guest giveaway. Franken was the star -- greeted with shrieks and yodels of delight -- who followed Al Sharpton's Little Richard routine at the DNC dinner at the New York Sheraton after the Pace University debate.

At Bruce Springsteen's tour-climaxing concerts at Shea Stadium last week, the Boss prefaced "Born in the USA" by telling the mammoth crowds, "Pick up Al Franken's book!"

New York Republicans talk privately about the need to crank up the other big stars on the GOP bench if Bush keeps heading south. Arnold may be the biggest of them all by the time of next year's convention in New York -- or else he may be the party's biggest embarrassment.

Meanwhile, there's Rudy Giuliani -- and, unlike Arnold, Rudy is constitutionally eligible for a spot on the national ticket. Friends wonder if Rudy is gearing up to be ready when -- O.K., if -- Bush dumps Cheney. His friends say he spends an inordinate amount of time on the phone with Karl Rove. Rudy would be W's ace in the hole, should he get scared (and brave) enough to play it.

The current V.P.'s ominous scowl doesn't do much to lift the nation's spirits. On "Meet the Press" he looked so freighted with administration secrets he seemed to be addressing Tim Russert from a low crouch position. Cheney's Halliburton connection clings to the administration like a gust of halitosis. Rudy would be political Binaca. And his 9/11 halo would help the president shift focus away from Iraq misadventures and back to fighting the terrorists who actually attacked us.

Rudy stands in the public mind for lionhearted crisis management. His new Churchillian receding hairline gives him more gravitas than ever. As V.P. he could bigfoot the homeland security portfolio without the political hazards that have sidelined Tom Ridge. And as the corporate scandals revive with a slew of high-profile trials, Rudy brings credentials as a Wall Street crime buster.

Maybe New Yorkers love the Giuliani-for-veep scenario because of what it promises for the presidential election in 2008 -- a revival of Rudy vs. Hillary. (The original version of that show closed in out-of-town tryouts, though the female star triumphed with a solo act.) The two of them may have more baggage than the hold of a 747, but they have prevailed.

By Tina Brown

Tina Brown's column appears every Thursday in Salon.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2004 Elections Arnold Schwarzenegger George W. Bush Rudy Giuliani