Declaring for President is a Dance of Seven Veils

Sen. John McCain i i

hide captionSen. John McCain (R-AZ), a likely presidential candidate, speaks in Washington, D.C., Nov. 16, 2006.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Sen. John McCain

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a likely presidential candidate, speaks in Washington, D.C., Nov. 16, 2006.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The first caucus votes for presidential nominations will be cast in Iowa just 13 months from now. In the same month, we'll have votes in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. The hurry-up calendar, combined with the wide-open fields in both parties, means candidates need to accelerate their tempo of operations immediately.

"Testing the waters" is a veil for what candidates do in the years when it's too unseemly to be seen actually running for president. They visit early-voting Iowa and New Hampshire, calling it coincidence. It's important to be coy during this toe-in-the-water period. But this veil is dropped when candidate and handlers believe the coyness has begun to cloy. And then the candidate's dance of the seven veils has begun.

The next step is another veil — usually the formation of an exploratory committee to consider formal candidacy. The exploratory committee has been around for decades, and technically it creates a legal shell for a candidate who expects to spend more than $5,000 while contemplating an actual run. Under the rules, exploratory money may be raised without the full disclosure of sources required of true candidates. Only when the candidate drops the exploratory label does the full responsibility of transparency apply.

Candidates use an exploratory committee as not only a transitional phase for their bookkeeping but as an extra claim on media attention. Some of the most skillful handlers like to leak word that their candidate is testing the waters, then leak word that he or she is thinking about forming an exploratory committee. Additional "news" can be made when the same candidate actually forms such a committee and registers with the Federal Election Commission. Yet a fourth round of attention may be generated when the word exploratory gets dropped from the committee filing.

As these first four veils appear and disappear, a candidate may also reach for a fifth, optional veil. This is the Larry King Live appearance during which candidates say they feel the call and now need only the blessing of their families. It is possible to perform this ritual on other TV programs (Arnold Schwarzenegger declared for governor on Jay Leno). But since King's big breakout year in 1992, he and CNN have held the franchise on these quasi-announcements.

The Sixth Veil involves the customary, formal announcement from a stage set somewhere in a meaningful place, like the candidate's birthplace or hometown. The candidate is joined by immediate and extended family members, official colleagues, funders, friends and members of the candidate's unit in the military (as available).

All that is left for the final veil is the requisite denial of any interest in being nominated for vice president. It might not be entirely honest, but it's expected. It shows you have not been dancing all this time merely out of exhibitionism. Everyone understands that if you profess zero interest in the No. 2 job in the most powerful nation on earth, you are, as they say, serious.

Not every candidate will use every veil, or find each equally useful. Generally speaking, the stronger the candidacy, the longer you can keep up the dance. That's why Sen. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, is still publicizing her sit-downs with party heavies in New York, securing their buy-in for her campaign. She can afford to elongate and extend her coming out.

At the other end of the food chain, long-shot hopefuls may need to truncate the dance. Democrat Tom Vilsack ditched the ritual denials and came right out as a candidate this month. The soon to be ex-governor of Iowa may not have much of a chance at the White House, but he's not going to be left behind for playing hard-to-get.

Another Democratic former governor, Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, has just promised to create an exploratory committee. And Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, the sudden media favorite generating the most buzz right now, has been slowly tempting the media and party activists for weeks now, smiling out from between his first and second veils. Watch for the rest of his veils to fall faster.

On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain of Arizona is postponing his announcement until January but fooling no one. His early rival, Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York, has begun his formal exploratory phase, as has Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas. Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson says he will have an exploratory committee shortly, and ultra-darkhorse Duncan Hunter, a veteran congressman from San Diego, has simply said he's in. He stands before the nation, completely unveiled.

Hasn't he been paying attention?

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