When it comes to the field of Democratic Presidential hopefuls, Chris Dodd has clearly decided that there is still a niche to be filled by someone like him.
While he thinks that Hillary Clinton can be President, he also notes that she is still in the midst of forming her Iraq policy. And as for John Edwards, John Kerry or Al Gore, well, they’ve already run.
What voters want, he said, is “the guy with experience and a fresh face.”
Enter the frosted white hair and unruly eyebrows of Mr. Dodd, 62, whose long tenure and rollicking reputation within one of the world’s most exclusive clubs make him a natural candidate for Senator-for-life.
But now, after more than two dozen years as one of Washington’s consummate insiders, Mr. Dodd—one of the most personally well-liked members of the Senate—is casting aside the comforts of his position as a senior member of the majority party, instead setting himself up as the perky outsider in an unlikely bid for President.
On Tuesday morning, Mr. Dodd was sipping coffee in a Manhattan restaurant after a long night of raising money and a tiring couple of months campaigning for Democratic candidates in the key primary states of New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada.
“I sort of have a unique position because I have experience, but I’m sort of a fresh face,” he said on Tuesday. “I know that’s kind of silly. I’ve been in the Senate 25 years.”
Mr. Dodd, a business-friendly social liberal, is fully aware that he has his work cut out for him. He is, to be blunt, not in the same universe as Hillary Clinton in terms of fund-raising, popularity or national stature. It’s something of a stretch to say that he’s on the same stage, politically speaking, as a John Edwards.
But Mr. Dodd said his minimal name recognition, flair for retail politics and deep experience may be the perfect recipe for victory in the quick succession of primary contests in small states.
“I’m not going to go out on a fool’s errand here,” he said.
So far, the pundits don’t seem to be buying Mr. Dodd’s act, no matter how charming it may be. A Quinnipiac University poll this week didn’t bother to list him among the hopefuls.
Even the arguments mounted by his most influential allies are characterized by a certain unmistakable modesty of ambition. “Nobody is taken seriously at this moment besides Hillary Clinton; he’s in the same boat as everyone else,” said Leslie Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, who has met several times with Mr. Dodd and thinks he is among the smartest and most amicable politicians in the Senate. “He fits in the category of a serious Senator with a limited following around the country.”
In the backroom of the DB Bistro Moderne on 44th Street on Tuesday morning, Mr. Dodd wore a striped blue shirt and a green tie and sat next to Richard Plepler, an HBO executive and former aide to Mr. Dodd, who is volunteering his time to help the Senator’s nascent Presidential effort. Mr. Dodd said he would probably make the official announcement of his candidacy after the New Year.
Mr. Dodd’s selling points, for now, are mostly issue-based. Fluent in Spanish, he is seen as one of the Senate’s leading experts on Latin America. He played a major role in the passing of the Family Medical Leave Act, child-care legislation and major tort reform. As the incoming chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, he has promised to increase home ownership and to look critically at the outsourcing of jobs and keeping defense manufacturing on U.S. soil.
And he has arrived, eventually, at what he says is a clear position on Iraq—one of the toughest issues facing the newly empowered Democrats—advocating the redeployment of American troops from Iraq’s urban areas to the quieter northern regions and to Kuwait and Afghanistan. He contrasted his specific assessment, however gently, with that of Mrs. Clinton, who Mr. Dodd said was still in the midst of forming a comprehensive position on the subject.
“I don’t fault people who are groping still in their minds,” he said, before explicitly putting Mrs. Clinton in a category of “serious people who are desperately trying to find what is the right answer for all of this.”
Policy aside, Mr. Dodd is also quick to offer reminders of his own political savvy, born of his five terms in the Senate. He suggested, for example, that incoming Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, by picking a losing fight over another Congressional leadership position, could be seen simply as a loyal friend. But, Mr. Dodd said, Ms. Pelosi could also be seen as having demonstrated a lack of political expertise by putting herself in a position to be defeated so soon after attaining her new position. “Why did you put yourself in a position where you have a story running and a headline, not ‘Woman, First Speaker’ but ‘Woman Loses First Battle’?” he said.
(In response, Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Mrs. Pelosi, said that her endorsement was a result of her friendship with Mr. Murtha and that “she is a forward-looking person.”)
Another advantage of his lengthy tenure—and his convivial manner—is that Mr. Dodd has lots of friends.
On Monday night, at a fund-raiser, Caroline Kennedy stepped out of a yellow taxi cab and walked through the gold gates of the Metropolitan Club on 60th Street, where she introduced Mr. Dodd to more than 150 guests, including Alec Baldwin, Lorne Michaels and storied financial consultant Felix G. Rohatyn.
Dozens of men in business suits and women in expensive heels emptied out of black Lincoln Town Cars for the event, which raised about a half-million dollars for Mr. Dodd’s political-action committee. Mitch Krieger, a 38-year-old money manager in a pinstriped shirt, attended the fund-raiser as a favor to a friend and client. Like many other donors who paid at least $1,000 to meet the Senator, Mr. Krieger said he wanted to get to know Mr. Dodd better.
“He’s been around a long time,” Mr. Krieger said. “People tell me he is a very affable guy, but he has been there for 26 years, so why now?” Mr. Krieger later said he was impressed by Mr. Dodd and would consider backing him.
Still, Mr. Krieger seems to be very much in the minority.
“Let’s put it this way,” said Hassan Nemazee, a veteran Democratic donor who has hosted a handful of the likely Democratic Presidential candidates at his apartment. “In a field that has many people who have been at this for well over a year and have both established a nationwide network and raised the money, have hired people out in the field, it’s a real stretch to think that he is going to be able to come from where he is to become a first-tier candidate.”
Mr. Dodd has also chatted up donors, with help from the smooth-talking Mr. Plepler, in Los Angeles, where he has met twice with Michael Lynton, the chairman and C.E.O. of Sony Pictures Entertainment, who is hosting a meet-and-greet with potential donors, some invited by Mr. Dodd’s office, at his house next week.
“I was very impressed by Senator Dodd,” said Mr. Lynton. “I’m not saying I prefer Senator Dodd to Senator Clinton. I haven’t met most of the candidates. But I could see myself supporting him, sure.”
That sort of reaction isn’t entirely surprising, given Mr. Dodd’s reputation as one of the most capable social animals in American politics. He is one of the last of a breed of old-school Irish-American Senators, along with his former Senate drinking buddies Ted Kennedy and the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
In 1978, during a Congressional bus trip through Memphis, Mr. Dodd and Representative Harold Ford, the father of Harold Ford Jr., who lost his bid for Tennessee’s Senate seat, commandeered a Dunkin’ Donuts shop for a legendary doughnut fight. After Mr. Dodd’s 12-year marriage ended in divorce in 1982, he began making a name for himself as one of Washington’s most eligible bachelors. He danced nearly into the small hours with a woman in a Budapest hotel and dated Bianca Jagger and Carrie Fisher. According to the Hartford Courant, his late-night carousing with Mr. Kennedy earned them the reputation in Washington as the “Playboys of the Western World.”
Whether all this is helpful biographical material for a Presidential candidate is certainly open to debate. But Mr. Dodd professes to be unconcerned.
“People have a lot more problems on their minds than worrying about some newspaper article or comment by a social columnist about 20 years ago,” said Mr. Dodd, now remarried with two young children. “Let them talk about that if they want to; it’s their business. I’m going to be talking about the world we live in. There are a lot more serious things.”
And, when it comes to the Democrats just beginning to look for their candidate for the 2008 election, Mr. Dodd is confident that where there’s indecision, there’s hope.
“Unless I’m tone deaf,” he said, “they’re shopping.”