March 25, 2008 / 11:28 AM / 10 years ago

What will happen to losers of White House race?

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - One may wind up as the first woman to lead the U.S. Senate. Another is relatively young and could run again for president. The third may simply resume his role as a congressional maverick and retire in two years.

These are among the options that await the losers in the three-way race for the White House.

John McCain, who has wrapped up the Republican presidential nomination, will square off in November against Hillary Clinton, 60, or Barack Obama, 46, both fellow senators locked in a battle for the Democratic nomination.

McCain, who turns 72 in August, would be the oldest first-term U.S. president. Clinton would be the first female president; Obama would be the first black president and one of the youngest.

“The three face very different situations, but in each case they have to show some grace if they lose -- or they will be in trouble,” said James Thurber of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.

The first test will be how quickly they are able to set aside the disappointment of failing to capture the White House. It’s not easy.

“Who says I’ve let go yet?” Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democrats’ failed 2004 presidential nominee, said with a chuckle and a shrug.

“It’s difficult. But you have to move on. Being a senator is a great job. You can do a lot of good,” Kerry said.

For the first couple of years after his 2004 defeat, Kerry kept a relatively low profile. He emerged much more in the past year or so, criticizing the handling of the U.S. war on terrorism.

This year’s election will be the first in which two sitting U.S. senators will face each other in the general presidential election. The last sitting senator to win the White House was John F. Kennedy in 1960.


Al Gore, a former senator turned vice president, rebounded from a gut-wrenching loss to George W. Bush in the 2000 White House race to win a share of the Nobel Peace Prize last year for his efforts as a private citizen to combat global warming.

George McGovern, another former Democratic nominee, recalls the silence after President Richard Nixon defeated him in a 1972 landslide.

“Suddenly it’s quiet and you feel a little lonely. Everyone vanishes. The national press corps leaves. The Secret Service (protective detail) says goodbye. You are no longer on the front page of the newspaper every day,” said McGovern, 85.

In a telephone interview from his home in Mitchell, South Dakota, McGovern said after a period of readjustment he decided to remain in the Senate and won re-election in 1974.

“I‘m glad I stayed,” McGovern said, citing major legislation he helped craft to combat hunger and help needy children, women and families. “It gave me great satisfaction.”

What advice would McGovern give to whoever loses the White House this year?

“Be thankful for the shot you got.”


Clinton of New York and Obama of Illinois now snipe at one another. But whoever loses the nomination must enthusiastically back the winner, according to a number of congressional scholars and senators.

If Clinton, wife of former President Bill Clinton, ends up conceding defeat to Obama and campaigns hard for him, she would win party support and appreciation and could eventually lead the Senate.

“If she wants to make the Senate a career, I can see her, before her career is over, become majority leader,” Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware said.

Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont said Clinton “could become one of the most powerful and influential members of the Senate,” but might not want to be confined by the job of majority leader, and prefer instead to push her own agenda.

Obama -- a first-term senator, charismatic figure and gifted orator -- could make another run for the White House, perhaps in 2012 or 2016.

“Even if he loses the (2008) nomination, I think he continues on an upward trajectory and would be a strong candidate to run for president again,” said Paul Light of New York University’s Center for the Study of the Congress.

“Say Clinton wins two terms, at that point Obama (in 2016), would be 54. That’s still young for a presidential candidate,” Light said.

If McCain loses, he would likely resume his outspoken defense in the Senate of the Iraq war and oppose any attempt by a new Democratic president to quickly withdraw U.S. troops.

“I’d assume McCain would keep doing what he’s doing and fighting for what he believes in,” said a top Republican aide.

McCain is in his fourth six-year Senate term. He’s up for re-election in 2010 when he will be 74.

“At that point, I think he retires,” said Thurber of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, adding McCain may decide by then he has had enough of bucking his own Republican leadership.

(Editing by Peter Cooney)

For more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at

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