Democrats excited as candidates visit state

Saturday, July 5th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Oklahoma Democrats finally have something to cheer about when it comes to presidential politics.

For the first time in more than a decade, Oklahoma is getting attention from Democratic contenders, who have been visiting the state with regularity in recent weeks.

June brought Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards to the state.

Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt made his second campaign stop in Oklahoma last week, former Florida Gov. Bob Graham was scheduled to arrive Monday and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is planning a mid-July trip.

Officials are even trying to arrange a town hall meeting of Democratic candidates in Stillwater the first week of August.

The activity developed after Oklahoma moved up its presidential primary from mid-March to Feb. 3, the week after the nation's first primary in New Hampshire.

Four other states also are deciding on the Democratic nominee on that day -- Missouri, Arizona, South Carolina and New Mexico.

All will be holding primary elections except New Mexico, which picks its presidential favorite through the caucus system.

"It's great to see Oklahoma getting all this attention on the national scene," said Sen. Keith Leftwich, R-Oklahoma City, who authored the bill to change the election date. "I've got to say it's even working better than I expected."

"It's a great thing for the party," said Jay Parmley, state Democratic chairman. "Just having them here, getting our activists excited will make us more energized about November."

State Republican Chairman Gary Jones seemed unimpressed. "I think it's quite obvious there is no frontrunner among them and they all look the same," he said.

Jones said the majority of Oklahomans back Republican President George Bush and "will overwhelmingly vote for Bush in 2004."

He said Democratic elected officials are just hoping "they can get a candidate they won't have to run away from."

Even Parmley isn't predicting a Democrat will be able to defeat Bush in Oklahoma, where the Republican nominee has won in every election except one since 1948. The exception was Texan Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

"Depending on who the nominee is, we might have a shot," Parmley said, although he said he is realistically hoping for a percentage showing by the Democratic nominee in the mid-40's.

That would be an improvement over Al Gore's 39 percent of the general election vote in 2000.

The way things are turning out, Parmley said, Oklahoma is lined up on Feb. 3 with four other states that have similar conservative to moderate voting patterns.

He said some of the top Democratic candidates who have been visiting the state obviously feel they can tap into that vote.

Oklahoma's Democratic race mirrors the national contest, according to Parmley. "It's a tossup and that's what makes it even more exciting."

He said officials are "very close" to setting up the town hall meeting among Democratic contenders in August on the campus of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.

"It would be nice to have all nine, but I would be happy with four or five," he said.

The presidential campaigning has enlivened a usually dull political summer before a general election year, when party officials devote most of their time to recruiting candidates.

"It's really jump-started the process," Parmley said. "I'm a little bit surprised we've seen this kind of commitment this early from the candidates."

He said one of the goals of the election date change from the party's perspective was to eliminate "a disconnect" between national Democrats and Oklahoma Democrats caused partly by the absence of presidential campaigning.