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Call it the invisible Democratic primary of 2003, where the battle for money, recognition, and endorsements is already raging

When Senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) announced his candidacy for the Presidency on Jan. 2, he joined a growing list of Democrats who are vying to take on President George W. Bush in 2004. Since former Vice-President Al Gore sidestepped a rematch, the Democratic camp has no clear favorite. "This race is wide open," says party strategist Tad Devine.

Yet the so-called invisible primary -- when potential candidates begin to amass war chests, line up experienced staff, and try to lock in support of party insiders -- has been under way for months. Now, Democrats are publicly unfurling their campaigns, each trying to convince primary voters that he's the one who should hoist the Democratic banner.

The latest: Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who has stepped down from his House Democratic Leader post and announced on Jan. 4 that he has started an exploratory committee. This is the second Presidential bid for Gephardt, who also ran in 1988.


  By now, eight Democrats have expressed an interest in running for President next year. In addition to Edwards, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts and outgoing Governor Howard Dean of Vermont have officially declared. Almost certain to follow is Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who was Gore's running mate in 2002.

Then there's Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who's giving a potential bid more attention, particularly after his party lost control of the Senate in November, downgrading him to Minority Leader. His colleague, Senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.), is considering running, too. Reverend Al Sharpton, who advocates a stronger voice for African Americans in national politics, has also said he'll join the fray.

The Democratic primary schedule for 2004 has been so condensed and front-loaded that money raised early is more important than ever. Many states have moved their primaries to the first quarter of next year, which means the Democratic candidate may be selected by March, 2004. Political analysts say that to be competitive, candidates will have to shell out anywhere from $15 million to $30 million in the runup to the primary fights.


  Here Senator Kerry has an early advantage. He has raised $2.5 million for his bid -- more than any of his potential competitors. More important, his wife, Teresa, the widow of Senator John Heinz (R-Pa.), is worth about a half-billion dollars. Gephardt is also well-positioned. He has raised more than $2 million, and he has substantial support among the unions -- traditionally some of the Democrats' biggest political contributors.

Money buys TV advertising, which will be crucial in boosting candidates' name recognition in key primary battleground states. Well-known candidates will have an advantage, which spells trouble for the likes of Dean and Edwards, both of whom are popular in their home states but obscure elsewhere.

Of course, the tsunami of media coverage Edwards garnered after his announcement will increase his visibility with the public. At a recent conference sponsored by political magazine Hotline, where the candidates' political handlers trumpeted their bosses' potential, Dean's political consultant, Steve McMahon, said not to count Dean out.

Dean would run from the left, Edwards from the middle

McMahon insisted that when Democrats become familiar with the Vermont governor's record, they'll warm to his candidacy. In particular, McMahon points to the fact that Dean extended health care to all Vermonters under the age of 18. "Anyone who cares about health care is going to take a hard look at Howard Dean," the political operative declared.


  If Dean is running from the left, expect Edwards to run as more of a centrist. The freshman legislator from North Carolina is little known on the national stage, registering at about 2% in preliminary polls in New Hampshire. But the former trial lawyer has made waves in Washington by trumpeting causes like the Patient's Bill of Rights and helping to reject some of President Bush's judicial picks.

Senator Edwards, who was the first member of his family to attend college, is also brandishing his working-class roots. "I believe I can be a champion for regular people," he said in his announcement speech.

Edwards faces an unusual hurdle: He's up for reelection to the Senate in 2004, and it will be difficult for him to seek the Presidential nomination while simultaneously fighting to maintain his Senate seat. His top political operative, Steve Jarding, says the dual campaigns are possible. "If you go home and make the case, you can do both," Jarding asserts.


  While these lesser-known candidates will have an uphill battle to be seen as viable contenders, the more established pols confront challenges of their own. Gephardt is a familiar face in American living rooms, but the fact that he's best known for his unsuccessful attempts at winning back the House for Democrats could dim his luster.

Senator Kerry is a decorated Vietnam vet and a three-term Senate veteran. But his record is decidedly liberal, which leaves him ripe to criticism that he's out of the mainstream. For example, the fact that he served as Lieutenant Governor to the much-maligned former Democratic Presidential nominee Michael Dukakis is sure to be used against him by Republicans.

Still, his chief political operative, Jim Jordan, said the largely positive reception Kerry received when he announced his campaign in December was a good sign. "It helps to be seen as a growth stock when people are picking teams," says Jordan.


  The Democrat who was most buoyed by Gore's decision to bow out may have been Lieberman. After the former Veep stepped aside, the Nutmeg State senator was free to make a Presidential run of his own without breaking his pledge to forgo challenging his old running mate. Lieberman's centrist credentials will make him stand out in a field that skews mostly to the left. He's also well-known and well-financed.

A big unknown lurks over Lieberman's bid, however: How will American voters react to the possibility of an Orthodox Jew being the leader of the free world? Senior Democratic consultants worry that Hispanic voters, who are overwhelmingly Catholic, might have trouble with Lieberman's religion. And don't be surprised by a whispering campaign insinuating that post-September 11 America would be less safe with a Jew in the White House.

It's impossible to say who'll ultimately headline the Democratic ticket. But the race for cash in the invisible primary of 2003 will certainly be a key factor.

By Alexandra Starr in Washington

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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