WASHINGTON – In the field of Democratic presidential candidates in 1992, a relatively unknown, centrist governor from Arkansas wasn’t the obvious frontrunner.
New York Magazine ran a story about that governor in January of that year titled, “Bill Clinton: Who Is This Guy?”
In February of 1992, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) won the Democratic caucuses in his home state. Former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas (D) won the New Hampshire primary later that month, with Clinton coming in second.
In a speech after the New Hampshire vote, Clinton famously said that voters in the Granite State had made him “the comeback kid” and said he looked forward to “taking this campaign across the country.” He ultimately went on to clinch the nomination that June, and defeated President George H. W. Bush that November.
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, in his long-shot bid for the Democratic nomination in 2020, appears to be hoping for a similar come-from-behind victory in a field that’s crowded with candidates on his left.
“The lesson Bill Clinton taught everybody in 1992 is the only way you can’t possibly win is if you don’t run,” said Erick Mullen, a Democratic strategist at the Washington-based firm Mercury Public Affairs.
But while national political observers won’t rule out the possibility that Bennet could be the next “comeback kid,” there’s a general consensus that his prospects aren’t great.
Colorado’s senior senator barely registers in national polls and trails his rivals in the early voting states. He has lagged far behind the frontrunners in fundraising. He missed a televised presidential debate in September and didn’t meet the requirements for the next debate earlier this month, either.
But Bennet’s biggest challenge “might be how he aligns with the national party on issues,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan newsletter Inside Elections.
Bennet has been running against the “Medicare for all” platform some of his liberal rivals are pushing. He’s airing an ad in Iowa that touts his more moderate approach to health care reform. His plan, which he calls Medicare-X, would establish a public insurance option to the Affordable Care Act (known as Obamacare) that would be available for people to buy on the exchange if they had no insurance or didn’t like their private insurance.
“I didn’t win two swing state elections by apologizing for Obamacare or making empty promises,” he says in the ad running in Iowa. “I did it by going everywhere, offering ideas that can win broad support, even the places that don’t vote for me. You want to beat Trump – that’s how.”
Gonzales of Inside Elections said he isn’t sure “what the appetite is for [Bennet’s] message among Democratic primary voters who are looking for a progressive or a liberal candidate.”
Still, Bennet’s campaign says there is still a path to victory.
“Our goal is to perform well in Iowa and to have momentum going into New Hampshire and into the other early states,” said campaign spokeswoman Shannon Beckham. She pointed to the surprise New Hampshire primary victory of former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart in 1984.
Hart, who endorsed Bennet last month, lost the Democratic primary that year to Vice President Walter Mondale.
Beckham said Bennet is focused on an agenda that can help Democrats win back some of the millions of voters who voted for President Barack Obama and then for President Donald Trump.
And it’s still early in the process. “The Superbowl is the night before the Iowa caucuses,” Gonzales said. “We have an entire NFL season and playoffs to go. … I think it’s still possible for one of the lower-tier candidates to make a move.”
Jockeying for a cabinet position?
Some political observers speculate that Bennet could use his White House bid to position himself as a vice presidential candidate or a cabinet secretary in a Democratic administration. Given his experience as superintendent of the Denver public schools, his name is mentioned as a possible education secretary. Those who know him well say a secretary of state appointment or Senate presidency would be more to his liking.
“Michael Bennet’s very, very, very, very smart,” said Ian Silverii, executive director of ProgressNow Colorado. “I honestly think that he believes that there’s a path forward to either the presidency, possibly the vice presidency or maybe a cabinet post.”
But at least for now, Silverii added, “I think he’s currently in it to win it.”
Bennet’s spokeswoman, Beckham, dismissed speculation that he has his eyes on anything but the Oval Office. “He’s in the race to win and to beat Trump and to become president.”
Mullen of Mercury Public Affairs also doesn’t think Bennet is angling for anything other than the White House.
“Nobody subjects themselves to this process as a gambit for a cabinet position. It’s just not why you put yourself through this grueling exercise of humiliation to apply for a job later that you could probably get if you wanted,” Mullen said. “Anybody who runs for president has decided they want to be president.”
Bennet is slated to make his latest trip to Iowa this weekend for a packed schedule that includes meet and greets and a “Brews with Bennet” event.
His campaign raised $2.1 million in the third quarter of this year, CNN reported, an amount that’s lower than the $2.8 million he raised in the second quarter and will likely pale compared to other candidates vying for the White House.
“I think he must be considering each day whether he should continue or not,” said James Thurber, former director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “Bennet is smart, he’s articulate, but he’s not breaking through the rest of the candidates.”
Bennet told CNN that he plans to stay in the race until at least the New Hampshire primary on February 11. “I’m in this race to win the nomination and defeat Trump,” he said, “so there’s no doubt I’ll be at the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary.”
Some experts think Bennet doesn’t stand to lose anything by staying in the race as long as he can.
“I think running for president is an opportunity to build your personal brand, your reach, your platform as long as you do it the right way,” Gonzales said. “You can lose in the right way and come out ahead of where you started.”
Rodell Mollineau, a Democratic strategist at Rokk Solutions and former Senate aide, doesn’t see Bennet losing stature by continuing to compete.
“I don’t think this is necessarily his last shot at doing it,” Mollineau said.
Bennet, 54, is relatively young in the pool of presidential candidates this cycle; Joe Biden is 76, Bernie Sanders is 78 and Trump is 73. Mollineau called Bennet well-respected and one of the most underestimated politicians in Washington.
Given the wide field of Democratic candidates, “I don’t think there’s any shame in losing in a presidential,” Mollineau added. “I can see [Bennet] having lost but coming back at some point in time.”