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Aug 10, 2004 8:25 pm

How Many Senators Have Been Elected President?

Jodi Wilgoren, in the NYT (Aug. 8, 2004):

SENATOR JOHN KERRY's wife likes to say he'd be a president who "loves history," but here's one historical fact he cannot be fond of: Just two of the scores of sitting senators who have ever sought the Oval Office actually got there, Warren G. Harding and John F. Kennedy.

It is axiomatic that nearly every member of the Senate ponders a presidential bid - four of the nine Democrats in this season's primary fight were members of the upper House, another one a graduate - but they rarely win. Is this a statistical fluke?

On paper, senators certainly seem like attractive candidates. They have dealt with a broad range of issues. They have proved themselves electable statewide. They have access to top fund-raisers. But does service in the Senate somehow backfire, turning otherwise successful politicians into bumbling candidates forced to defend lengthy legislative records the average governor - or, better yet, general - can avoid?

"It is almost impossible to go through a 20-year record in the Senate and not be able to find things that might embarrass a candidate," observed the presidential historian Michael Beschloss. "If you're a great Senate leader and you're running, people might think you're a hack. And then if you're a senator and you weren't a great leader, people might wonder why weren't you?"

Which may be why Mr. Kerry's campaign aides rarely use the honorific he has earned in nearly 20 years on Capitol Hill, instead referring to the candidate only as "John Kerry'' in news releases, travel schedules and when talking about him.

Only 3 of the campaign's 18 television advertisements since April even mention his day job, describing him alternately as a combat veteran, former prosecutor, husband, father, "advocate for kids," hunter, pilot, even hockey player.

And in accepting his party's presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, as his opponents were quick to point out, Mr. Kerry spent just 26 seconds - 73 of the 5,343 words in his speech - talking about his time in the Senate.

While Mr. Bush argues that his opponent is trying to hide a record of voting to raise taxes and cut defense, Mr. Kerry's advisers may be making a historically informed calculation about the rocky path from the Senate to the White House.

In a paper published two years ago in Political Science Quarterly, Barry C. Burden, a professor at Harvard University, laid out the long odds: Of the 54 presidential elections since 1789, 15 saw current or former senators win; from 1868 to 1972, 16 percent of senators who sought their party's nomination got it, compared with 48 percent of governors; and from 1960 to 1996, while sitting senators made up more than a third of those running for president, just 11 percent won party nods and 2 percent the general election.

As Mr. Kerry has already learned many times over, a Senate record - he has cast some 6,000 votes since arriving in Washington in 1985 - is easy ammunition.

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