Worried Dems wish for 'dream team'

What are the odds Democrats will field a "dream team ticket" with Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton combining forces?

London bookmaker Ladbrokes is taking bets at 8-1, but leading Democratic insiders aren't ready to put down their money — yet.

The conundrum: The need for a coalition ticket that could mend the party's divisions becomes more urgent as the primary battle stretches on and takes a harsher tone. Yet as their fight gets fiercer, it becomes harder to imagine the two ever getting together.

"It ain't a match made in heaven anymore," says Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist who ran Al Gore's 2000 campaign, noting increasingly bitter statements made in recent weeks by each campaign's staff and supporters toward the other. Monday's back-and-forth centered on charges of McCarthyism and "gutter politics."

Growing alarm among some Democrats that the rancor could squander what had seemed like a near-certain win in November makes them yearn for a ticket with both Obama and Clinton, in either order. A nomination contest that continues to the August convention could split the party in two just as the general election begins in earnest.

"Nastier things have been said in other primaries," says Matt Bennett, a veteran of retired general Wesley Clark's 2004 presidential bid and co-founder of a think tank called Third Way. "The difference is there's something that is truly at risk here — this incredible excitement that both candidates have generated. My concern is the level of acrimony could rise to such a point that the people both candidates are bringing out could become disillusioned and stay home in the fall."

Bennett and other Democratic analysts worry that voters under 30, energized to turn out for Obama in record numbers in this year's primaries, could tune out if he isn't nominated. While African-American voters who now support Obama by nearly 9-to-1 aren't likely to support the Republican candidate, some might choose not to vote unless the Illinois senator leads the ticket.

And white women over 50 who are part of Clinton's base — and among the nation's most reliable voters — could become disenchanted with the Democratic Party if she doesn't prevail.

"I'm starting to worry," Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, an adviser to John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election, writes in The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper. "I believe Democrats are exquisitely positioned to win the White House in 2008. The only thing that could defeat us is us, and it feels like we just might."

Party harmony already has taken a hit. In a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken March 14-16, 30% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents called an Obama-Clinton ticket their "first choice," and a similar number said that of a Clinton-Obama ticket.

However, one in four said an Obama-Clinton ticket was "not acceptable." Another one in four ruled out a Clinton-Obama ticket.

Voters were most resistant to the idea of having the candidate they support accept the No. 2 slot. A third of Obama supporters rejected a Clinton-Obama ticket, and a third of Clinton supporters rejected an Obama-Clinton ticket.

"The fact is you've got a very close race … and people on both sides are getting more dug in with their particular candidate," says Leon Panetta, a former California congressman and White House chief of staff for Bill Clinton. "That raises the potential that whoever gets the nomination, the other candidate will feel like he or she has been robbed."

As resentments swell, the imperative for a joint ticket could overwhelm other factors that nominees customarily consider in choosing a running mate — including tapping someone with whom the nominee has good relations. In 1980, despite frosty feelings, Ronald Reagan put primary rival George H.W. Bush on the ticket in a pragmatic political move.

Normally, nominees have "the flexibility to decide who their running mate is going to be so they're comfortable with that running mate, and that person meets their particular political and substantive needs," Panetta says. "But in this situation, if in fact the party is divided, if there's a danger that important constituencies may break away — the only way to hold them together may be to have both of them on the same ticket."

'An almost unstoppable force'

The topic already has caused friction between the two camps.

Two weeks ago, Bill Clinton suggested that his wife and Obama would be "an almost unstoppable force" if they joined together — presumably with Hillary Clinton in the lead spot.

"If you can unite the energy and the new people that he's brought in and the people in these vast swaths of small-town and rural America that she's carried overwhelmingly, if you had those two things together, she thinks it'd be hard to beat," Bill Clinton said while campaigning in Mississippi.

Obama accused the Clinton campaign of "hoodwinking" voters by suggesting he wasn't ready to be commander in chief while simultaneously floating the possibility of a joint ticket. "That's exactly the kind of doublespeak, double talk that Washington is very good at," he said. Obama noted that he, not Clinton, held the lead in pledged convention delegates.

"I want everybody to be absolutely clear: I'm not running for vice president," Obama said. "I'm running for president of the United States of America."

Obama supporters were outraged by the suggestion he should take the No. 2 spot, says Joe Madison, who heard from them on his radio talk show. His program is carried on Washington's WOL-AM and syndicated on XM Satellite Radio.

"For her to suggest that Obama would be a good running mate is an insult because, one, she's behind in the delegate count, and she can't offer what she doesn't have," Madison says. "What you end up doing is undervaluing, underestimating and marginalizing Obama's status as the front-runner."

The idea of an Obama-Clinton ticket has its own hurdles — for one, whether the 60-year-old New York senator would be willing to accept the secondary spot to a rival 14 years her junior. For another, what complications might arise for a new president in having a former president as the vice president's spouse. "You have to wonder," University of Pennsylvania political scientist Richard Johnston says.

Still, neither candidate has flatly rejected a joint ticket, even as Obama's campaign questions Clinton's honesty and the Clinton camp portrays Obama as unready. Obama campaign manager David Plouffe and top Clinton strategist Mark Penn both refused to discuss the issue, calling it premature.

"We'd have some inevitable questions," Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell told reporters after a Clinton rally in Scranton, Pa., this month. " 'Sen. Obama, you said Sen. Clinton wasn't trustworthy; how can you make her vice president, one heartbeat away?' 'Sen. Clinton, you said Sen. Obama is not ready to meet the challenge of national security; how can you put him one heartbeat away?' "

Even so, Rendell, a Clinton supporter, said a joint ticket led by either one "would be great."

History's lesson: They work

Wounds left by primary battles are one reason that no presidential candidate in a generation has chosen his top primary opponent to join him on the ticket. In 2000, George W. Bush tapped Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney, who had retired from politics eight years earlier. In 1992, Bill Clinton chose Tennessee Sen. Al Gore, who had cited family considerations in sitting out the primaries that year.

There are precedents, though — and history demonstrates that a team of rivals often prevails.

In 1960, Democrat John F. Kennedy selected the older, more experienced Texas Sen. Lyndon Johnson, who had hoped to claim the presidential nomination himself. Johnson, then the Senate majority leader, accepted the No. 2 spot, but relations between him and the Kennedy camp were never easy. Still, he delivered what JFK wanted, bolstering his strength among Southern conservatives generally and carrying Texas in particular.

In 1976, after a Republican nomination battle that went all the way to the national convention in Kansas City, Mo., President Ford and challenger Ronald Reagan didn't join forces. Ford didn't ask, Reagan told associates he wasn't interested — and Ford narrowly lost the election to Jimmy Carter.

Four years later, Reagan won the nomination and, after a flirtation with Ford, chose the elder Bush as his running mate.

Stuart Spencer, one of Reagan's chief campaign strategists, recalls discussing the vice presidential pick during the five-hour flight to the National Convention in Detroit from Los Angeles.

"Reagan spent the first 20 minutes dumping on George Bush," Spencer says. "He was very unhappy with George Bush and some of the attacks made on him in the primaries — 'voodoo economics' and that. I listened to the entire thing. He said, 'What do you think about it?' I said, 'I think you're going to pick George Bush.' "

Reagan needed to reach out to moderate Republicans and reassure voters concerned about his lack of Washington experience. Bush helped do both.

Too much change?

For Democrats this time, "whichever one of them ends up as the nominee, they have to make an appeal to the other person's voters," says John Podesta, a veteran Democratic operative who was president Clinton's chief of staff and now heads the Center for American Progress in Washington. While there are several ways to do that, he says, "one direct line is to offer the vice presidency to the person who comes in second."

At the moment, though, tensions between the two contenders continue to grow, and a down-to-the-wire nomination battle might not leave enough time for tempers to cool. "There's pride on the line," Johnston says. "After having split the vote 50-50, it'd be difficult for each to concede to the other."

A grinding month of campaigning leading up to the Pennsylvania primary on April 22 is likely to make things worse, he says. "The situation is set up for maximum nastiness, (and) the worry is the next few weeks will dry up whatever goodwill there is."

Some Democratic activists also are concerned that having both a woman and an African-American on the ticket could create unease among some voters accustomed to white men as president and vice president, making it harder to win the White House. "An Obama-Clinton or Clinton-Obama ticket is too big a bite for the American voter to take at one time," Madison says.

The traditional formula would call for either one to balance his or her ticket with a white man, perhaps one with a centrist mien and a swing-state address.

Spencer says strategists would need to "measure this issue with the public" — that is, take polls and hold focus groups — before settling on an Obama-Clinton or Clinton-Obama ticket.

"I can make the case it's too big of a change for them to accept all of a sudden," the Republican consultant says of the American electorate, while noting he's seen generational shifts in response to Obama's campaign this year that make the combination worth considering.

"It could be a powerhouse," Spencer says.