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Jan 14, 2015 3:42 AM

In presidential politics, does grammar really matter?

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) Outside of a grade-school classroom, there may be no one paying as much attention to matters of grammar than those trying to predict who is going to run for president.

They'll argue that verb tense matters.

Until it doesn't matter at all.

Fortune magazine made a splash Tuesday when it published an interview with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has said repeatedly she is "not running for president."

That's present tense, which grammatically means she's not currently in the act of running for president. That answer would seem to keep her options open, some have said, stoking the hopes of some liberals who are eager to see Warren get into the race.

Yet in the Fortune interview, when Warren was asked by Sheila Bair, the former head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., "Are you going to run for president?" Warren had a simple reply: "No."

Future tense.

Done deal, right?

Well, not by the standard set this past week by Mitt Romney. Asked by a New York Times reporter in January 2014 whether he would seek the Republican nomination for a third time, Romney seemed to offer a definitive answer.

"Oh, no, no, no. No, no, no, no, no. No, no, no," Romney told the newspaper. "People are always gracious and say, 'Oh, you should run again.'

"I'm not running again."

Except that on Friday, Romney sent the political world into a tizzy when he told donors at a private New York meeting that he was, in fact, now considering another run for president.

In the days since, Romney has reached out to former staff and supporters in an effort that many think will end with a third White House campaign. That's despite his using the word "no" 11 times in that single answer, which he capped with a statement but in present tense! summing up his intent not to run.

President Barack Obama's words were frequently parsed during his days as a U.S. senator from Illinois who pledged to serve his full term, which would have precluded a run for president in 2008. That changed in a memorable October 2006 appearance on "Meet the Press," when he acknowledged he was thinking about a presidential bid.

Obama and Romney's examples haven't gone unnoticed by Warren's fans at MoveOn.org and Democracy for America, two liberal groups promoting her possible candidacy. "Warren has been clear for years that she isn't planning on running," they said in a statement responding to the Fortune interview. "If she were running, there wouldn't be a need for a draft effort."

Dealing with how politicians answer The Question has long been a part of the campaign for the White House. Journalists often seek a Shermanesque statement of certitude, derived from the pledge made by Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, a potential Republican candidate in the 1884 election, who said: "If drafted, I will not run. If nominated, I will not accept. If elected, I will not serve."

Some prospective candidates have had fun when badgered to give such an answer. After struggling in his 1976 campaign, Democratic Rep. Mo Udall of Arizona shut the door to a 1980 challenge to President Jimmy Carter with this: "If nominated, I will run for the Mexican border. If elected, I will fight extradition."

Perhaps no one has been asked the question more than Hillary Rodham Clinton, the leading Democratic contender for the Oval Office should she run for a second time. Trying to figure out her intentions is a natural for those who see politics as comedy. During her book tour, late-night host Jon Stewart teased Clinton with questions about her home office preferences, asking: "Would you like that office ... to have corners? Or would you like it not to have corners?"

Clinton quipped, "The fewer corners that you can have, the better."

Mike Feldman, a former adviser to Vice President Al Gore, said the proliferation of social media and news outlets has exposed potential candidates to more scrutiny and more parsing of their words.

"Political cycles don't end," he said. "They just bleed into each other."

But he noted that if Sherman were considering a presidential campaign today, he'd have one thing going for him. Sherman's statement would safely come in under 140 characters, allowing it to be blasted out to the masses on Twitter.


Follow Ken Thomas on Twitter: https://twitter.com/KThomasDC


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