Posted on January 20, 2003 in Washington Watch

It is January 2003 and, as expected, the 2004 contest to select a Democratic candidate to challenge President George W. Bush has already begun. Despite two prominent dropouts, former Vice President Al Gore and Senator Tom Daschle, the field of Democratic aspirants is large and growing.

Gore’s decision not to run came at the end of a national media tour designed to promote his new book, “Joined at the Heart: the Transformation of the American Family.” The book did not sell well, but Gore’s reemergence in public life was well received. And so his decision not to run left his supporters disappointed. Many still strongly believe that Gore had been unfairly denied the Presidency in 2000 by a partisan Supreme Court decision. They were hoping for a 2004 rematch.

Gore, however, sensed that such a rematch was not a winning proposition. The press, he believed, would see this as a replay of 2000 and would dredge up all of the old themes of the last election-especially Gore’s “personality” issues and the scandals of the Clinton White House.

The other leading Democrat who announced that he will not run is the party’s leader in the U.S. Senate. With Gore and Daschle out, the doors have opened wide to other candidates. To date, five have already announced their candidacy, with at least five others considering a possible 2004 run for the White House.

This week’s latest entry is Senator Joseph Lieberman, a conservative Democrat who in 2000 ran as Gore’s Vice-Presidential running mate. Lieberman joins a field of announced candidates that includes: Congressman Richard Gephardt, former Minority Leader of the House of Representatives; Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts; Senator John Edwards of North Carolina; and Governor Howard Dean from the state of Vermont.

Not yet formally declared, but widely reported to be considering a run for the Democratic nomination are: Senator Robert Graham of Florida; Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware; former NATO Commander General Wesley Clark; civil rights leader Al Sharpton; and former Senator Gary Hart, who also ran for the nomination in 1984 and 1988.

At this point, without Gore, the race is wide open. No one candidate stands out in the crowded field. A recent poll, for example, showed Lieberman, Kerry, Edwards and Gephardt all with support between 19% and 13%. Dean and the other unannounced candidates all receive single digit support.

The challenge for most of these presidential aspirants will be to define their “uniqueness” early in the race. With the exception of Dean, Sharpton and Clark, the rest of the group have had good, but not outstanding records in the Congress. Most of the group supported President Bush’s war on terror and his threatened war on Iraq. Lieberman and Gephardt even broke ranks with their colleagues to co-sponsor with Republicans the President’s “war resolution”. Additionally, most of this field claims to be “centrists” on economic policy.

The major exception to the profile, of course, is the Reverend Al Sharpton. He is anti-war and a harsh critic of the Administration’s economic and social policies. The major negative factors in Sharpton’s candidacy are controversial actions in his past and the belief of many African Americans that he is seeking to use his candidacy to become the “new Jesse Jackson”-i.e. the major spokesman for African Americans and the arbiter of the African American vote within the Democratic Party. As a result, a number of African American elected officials are considering the possibility of running in an effort to block Sharpton’s rise.

Since no Senator has won the presidency since Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy did 40 and 44 years ago respectively, Howard Dean’s supporters consider his tenure as a governor as a positive factor in his candidacy. Like Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter (both Democratic governors) and Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush (all Republican governors), eight of the last nine presidential elections have been won by former governors. Dean’s major drawback, however, seems to be that although he has been running for the nomination for almost one year, he has still not attracted major national attention and has had trouble breaking through against a field of better known Senators.

Clearly the dark horse candidate in the mix is General Wesley Clark, former Supreme Commander of NATO Forces in Europe. A charismatic military leader, Clark is still a political unknown. He has been a critic of the Administration’s “go it alone” approach to the war on terror and the confrontation with Iraq. While Clark has been quietly sounding out potential fundraisers and campaign supporters, his views on most other issues are still not widely known.

Hart was the charismatic young candidate who almost upset Walter Mondale in the Democratic primaries of 1984. Though he was favored to win the nomination in 1988, Hart was forced to withdraw from the race after being caught in a sex scandal. He has been out of electoral politics since that time. He has maintained his viability and visibility, however, heading a number of influential panels that have analyzed and made recommendations on national security issues. Apparently, some of his 1980s campaign staffers and some younger activists have been encouraging him to run again. It is not clear how the press and public will receive Hart’s reentry into politics.

At this point, Americans concerned by the failure of the Bush Administration to provide balanced leadership in pursuing Middle East peace, will not hear their criticisms echoed by any of these candidates with the exception of Sharpton, and to a degree of Kerry and Clark. But this may change.

Lieberman, for example, who is one of Israel’s strongest supporters in the Congress, did anger some hard line pro-Israel activists by his recent balanced comments made during his last Middle East visit. He backtracked somewhat in a more recent appearance before the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. Edwards, Gephardt and Dean appeared to support hard-line pro-Israeli positions after their latest Middle East visits. But the situation remains volatile and the Administration is vulnerable to criticism should one candidate decide to distinguish himself from the group by raising it.

In addition to defining their differences from the rest of the field, there are two other significant challenges facing this growing group of Democratic candidates.

One will be raising the necessary funds and attracting a strong campaign staff. With such a large group running, the competition will be intense, making this the “first primary.”

To run an effective campaign it is estimated that a candidate must raise at least $12 million by December-or one million dollars per month-a difficult challenge even without the competitors.

The second test will be the ability to lay out an agenda of winning ideas that accomplish three objections: captivate public attention; galvanize the diverse constituencies within the Democratic Party; and provide a platform that can successfully challenge President Bush.

At present, Bush’s policy numbers indicate an interesting trend. His job performance rating is dropping, especially in areas like the economy, health care, the federal budget and foreign affairs. Additionally, only one-third of all voters now say that they will definitely vote for Bush in 2004. Another one-third say that they will definitely vote for someone else, while another one-third say that they remain undecided. And so the President is vulnerable. But Bush’s strong suit is the fact that the public likes him and his positive feelings about his personal qualities.

To win, therefore, Democrats need to advance a candidate who can put forward a clear alternative to the Administration’s agenda and a candidate who is liked and trusted and can mobilize not only Democratic supporters but independents and even some moderate Republicans.

It remains to be seen if this can be done, but the picture will become clearer as the current field of candidates begins to give shape to their campaigns.

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