A Flooded Field of Dems

With Bush's popularity dropping, Democrats are jostling for position in the 2004 race. Here's an early handicapping of the contenders

By Richard S. Dunham

After despairing about their party's disastrous performance in the midterm election of 2002, Democrats are seeing the first faint signs of optimism for 2004. President Bush's popularity continues to fall from stratospheric heights, amid rising public concerns about his handling of the sour economy, Iraq, and North Korea. Indeed, a Feb. 25-26 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll gave Bush a scant 42%-38% lead over a generic Democratic opponent in a hypothetical 2004 reelection matchup. That's a strong Anybody-but-Bush sentiment, and it represents a major shift from only a few months ago, when Bush held a huge 44%-21% advantage.

With a new sense that the first-term President might be vulnerable, Democrats are searching for a winner. "There's a real hunger," said Judy Reardon, former legal counsel to former New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen, as she waited to hear from three would-be nominees at a Feb. 27 fund-raising dinner in Manchester, N.H. "More than in past races, people are looking at who has the potential to beat George Bush."

Who could it be? Already, nine candidates have announced their intention to seek the party's Presidential nod, and at least four more are mulling a run. Almost all of the candidates showed up for two early "cattle calls" in late February -- one at the Democratic National Committee winter meeting in Washington, the other in New Hampshire's largest city. And while the first ballot won't be cast for more than 10 months, early favorites are starting to emerge. Here are my first impressions of the Democratic field:

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. He has captured the imagination of many Democratic Party leaders, and he's getting the best "buzz" from the purveyors of conventional wisdom (which is a doubled-edged sword). What do people like? He's articulate, he's handsome, he's a decorated war veteran, he's an expert on national-security issues, he's tech-friendly, and he's very, very wealthy (largely a result of his marriage to the widow of ketchup scion and former Senator John Heinz).

He's also a familiar face in the pivotal first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary, thanks to the proximity of the Boston media market to the Granite State. At this point, Kerry tops the polls in New Hampshire, though the latest national poll on the Dem contenders from Fox/Opinion Dynamics finds him running in third place. Many Republicans express glee at the prospect of running against the long-vanquished Michael Dukakis' former lieutenant governor.

Because of recent prostate-cancer surgery, Kerry missed the February look-'em-over events, so it's hard to say how he stacks up against his Democratic rivals as a speechifier. But there's no denying he has put together a talented staff and has an excellent "ground game" ready in the key early states.

Missouri Representative Richard Gephardt. The media elite would love to bury the former House Majority (and Minority) Leader, who failed in a 1988 attempt to capture the White House. "Yesterday's news," the pundits have proclaimed. "A proven loser," they assert. But reports of Gephardt's demise may be greatly exaggerated. He's clinging to first place in the new Fox poll, and he remains within striking distance of Kerry in New Hampshire.

Gephardt confounded the doomsayers with a fiery populist message at the DNC meeting. His speech -- which combined a caustic critique of Bushonomics, a hawkish foreign-policy message, and the most detailed list of new policy prescriptions -- brought the partisan crowd to its feet several times. The key for Gephardt is going to be Iowa caucuses on January 19, 2004. A next-door neighbor from Missouri, the son of a St. Louis milkman needs an early win in the Hawkeye State to prove that he's still a candidate with a future. Gephardt may have something to prove to many party activists and political correspondents, but it would be a mistake to write him off too quickly.

Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. He's the rock star of 2003. Riding the wave of anti-war sentiment in the Democratic Party's base, he has borrowed a famous phrase from the late liberal icon Paul Wellstone and declared that he's the leader of "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." Like George McGovern in 1972, Dean is enlisting an army of volunteers -- from college kids to veteran activists -- to knock on doors, lick envelopes, and cheer the new hero of the New Left.

Dean, a medical doctor, is a political eclectic: He's far to the left on foreign policy issues, yet he is a staunch supporter of guns as well as gay rights, he favors a balanced budget, and he demands universal health insurance coverage. This could be a formula for a powerful political coalition -- or the seeds of political self-destruction.

Thus far, Dean has caught the fancy of many party activists. Gerald Sneison, a retired airline pilot from Durham, N.H., and his wife first met Dean at a house party last year. "Nobody had ever heard of him, including us," says Sneison. Now, they're convinced that the doctor has the prescription needed to fix the nation's ills.

Sneison isn't the only convert. Dean was enthusiastically received at both of the recent Democratic events. While he lags far behind in national polls (4% in the Fox poll, up from 2% in January), he's a definite comer. By Richard S. Dunham Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman. Al Gore's 2000 running mate is the mystery man of the 2004 race. His speech at the DNC was widely considered a dud, and he was overshadowed at the New Hampshire event by stem-winding orations by Dean and the Reverend Al Sharpton. The Fox poll showed him dropping from 29% to 15% in the past month as his name-recognition edge seems to be wearing off. He's running a weak fourth in New Hampshire.

Some Democrats suggest he's too conservative to win the nomination, and too bellicose to appeal to the party's dovish majority. From close-up observation, Lieberman definitely needs to overhaul his stump speech, which is long on clichés and criticism and short on his personal vision for the nation's future. Still, watching Lieberman press the flesh at New Hampshire's largest law firm on Feb. 28, it's clear that the veteran senator has plenty of charm and charisma with small groups. He's going to have to do better in front of large crowds if he's going to rebound.

North Carolina Senator John Edwards. Some Democratic activists see Edwards as the kind of centrist Southerner who can lead the party to victory next November. Manchester (N.H.) teacher Corey Doherty says Edwards "has a lot of Clinton's attributes, but he's also very devoted to his family." So why is he at a scant 6% in national polls and at 2% in one recent New Hampshire poll?

It may be his boyish looks (although he's 50 years old) and his lack of military experience. Edwards is terrific in a small-group setting, and he gives a good speech, but he won't win the nomination by being a respectable runner-up. Unless he finds that elusive "gravitas" and builds a better grassroots organization, he could end up as a favorite for the Veep slot rather than the top job.

The Reverend Al Sharpton. The veteran African-American activist has the best applause lines of all the Democratic candidates. He brought the New Hampshire crowd to its feet when he pointed out that the President -- a firm opponent of racial preferences -- had benefited from preferences and set-asides throughout his life. "In 2000, the Supreme Court set aside the whole election to make him President of the United States," the candidate told the roaring partisans.

Still, nobody except the candidate will predict victory. "Sharpton is a great orator," says a woman from Houston who recently saw him speak in New Hampshire. "He makes us think a lot." True, but can he win? "No."

Back in the Pack:

• Former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley-Braun is the first African-American elected official to seek the Presidency since then-Representative Shirley Chisolm in 1972. But she elicited only polite applause at the DNC meeting and remains all-but-invisible in the early primary states thus far.

• Cleveland congressman Dennis Kucinich is challenging Dean for support among the party's ultraliberals. He's a proud liberal populist, a trade protectionist, and an anti-war crusader. But can he organize a national campaign?

• Florida Senator Bob Graham, recovering from heart surgery, recently became the ninth candidate in the field. On paper, he's a strong contender: centrist, respected, former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, resident of a key swing state. But he's far, far behind the front-runners when it comes to organization and fund-raising.

More Presidential prospects are still considering their futures. Among them: former Colorado Senator Gary Hart, former NATO commander Wesley Clark, Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd, and Delaware Senator Joseph Biden. As Lieberman joked at the $100-a-plate New Hampshire dinner, "Before long, we're going to have 100 candidates for the Democratic nomination." Or maybe it's an accurate prediction.

Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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