Handicapping the Dem Wannabes

In a month, their primary scramble is likely to come down to three viable candidates. Here's how our oddsmaker calls it

By Richard S. Dunham

If you've been following the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination, you would almost think the primaries are over. The people have spoken -- to pollsters at least. A nominee, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, has been anointed. The rest is mere formality.

Not so fast. Dean has managed to move from obscure outsider to prohibitive favorite during the past year. But in a month or so, the real contest begins in Iowa and New Hampshire. Just remember that at this point in past Presidential campaigns, the likes of Ed Muskie, Henry "Scoop" Jackson, Ted Kennedy, and John Connally all were the smart-money picks to win their party's nomination. All flamed out, Muskie and Kennedy in dramatic fashion, Jackson and Connally with dull thuds.

When it comes to the 2004 Democratic Presidential field of nine candidates, you can take this to the bank: A month from today, no more than three would-be nominees will have a prayer of winning. So, with the showdowns in Iowa and New Hampshire just weeks away, here's how they stand:

Howard Dean

The good doctor is pulling away from the pack in the Jan. 27 first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary. And he seems to have the momentum in Iowa, where recent polls show him moving ahead of Dick Gephardt in the Jan. 19 caucuses. Democratic regulars -- at first suspicious of the angry antiwar outsider who railed against Washington insiders -- are warming to him now as a sense of inevitability envelopes his candidacy.

However, Dean is by no means guaranteed. Though he has more money than any other Dem and a loyal cadre of followers, his shoot-from-the-lip style still could lead to a catastrophic gaffe.

Odds of winning the nomination: 1 to 3.

Wesley Clark

The retired four-star general and ex-NATO commander is best positioned to pick up the pieces if Dean's campaign collapses. Though he has taken conventionally liberal Democratic positions on social issues and has been critical of President Bush's Iraq game plan, his military record and aura of gravitas make him a safe fallback.

The late-starting Arkansan has put together an impressive campaign organization quickly, and he might be able to compete with Dean in the Sunbelt-state primaries on Feb. 3. At this point, however, the betting is that Clark heads the short list for Vice-President.

Odds: 8 to 1.

Dick Gephardt

The Missouri congressman, an unsuccessful 1988 Presidential aspirant, is betting the farm on Iowa. He has strong backing from blue-collar unions, and he's well-known by voters in his neighboring state. His populist economic positions, hawkish foreign policy profile (he supported the Iraq invasion and never has wavered), and Midwestern roots would make him a formidable general election candidate.

Trouble is, the former House Majority (and Minority) Leader will have to struggle mightily to make it that far. Gephardt's support for the war in Iraq has caused him untold grief among dovish Democratic primary voters. And Dean has succeeded in stealing away endorsements from powerful government-employee unions.

As the balloting draws near, Gephardt has become Dean's fiercest critic. In Iowa, Gephardt allies even ran anti-Dean TV ads featuring the face of Osama bin Laden. It could well backfire.

Odds: 12 to 1.

John Kerry

It seems like it was years ago when Washington pundits were declaring Kerry the Democratic front-runner. He seemed to have it all: The jutting jaw, the initials of JFK, a stellar reputation on Capitol Hill, and a distinguished war record. He was the handsome liberal who could neutralize the GOP's national-security edge.

What happened? Well, he has run one of the limpest campaigns in modern times. While Kerry dithered, Clark stole the war-medal vote, and Dean captured the fancy of the liberal crowd. With the must-win showdown in New Hampshire a month away, Kerry isn't leading among any party-constituency groups.

He's well-known and well-liked among New Hampshire Dems -- they just aren't buying him as President. Not even Ted Kennedy, his Bay State colleague, has been able to help him.

Odds: 25 to 1.

John Edwards

How does this sound for a winning formula? A smart, handsome Southerner steps forward, vowing he'll put average people first if elected President. Worked for Bill Clinton. But it's not, so far, for the freshman senator from North Carolina. Edwards has been a policy wonk with a smile. He has more position papers than your local think tank, and he sounds good in a town-hall meeting.

He just hasn't seemed to catch on with average folks. Despite spending millions, he's still mired in single digits everywhere but his native state of South Carolina. His only hope is that Dean self-destructs and Clark can't cash in the South.

Odds: 40 to 1. By Richard S. Dunham Joseph Lieberman

The list of distinguished senators who have been utter failures as Presidential candidates is long. Among them: Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), and Birch Bayh (D-Ind.). Add to that Connecticut's Lieberman. He won kudos from most Democrats for his 2000 Vice-Presidential run, but that hasn't translated into support for the top job.

Just ask his old running mate Al Gore, who didn't even have the guts to call Lieberman to tell him he was going to endorse Dean. The standard-bearer of the party's centrist wing, Lieberman makes perhaps the most effective and cutting critique of the Bush record -- and of the Dean candidacy. But he has never come up with a compelling rationale for his own candidacy. Despite lots of detailed policy proposals, the spark has eluded him.

National polls still show Lieberman running second or third in the pack behind Dean, but he's close to zero in the states that count.

Odds: 200 to 1.

Hillary Clinton

The junior senator from New York insists she isn't a candidate in 2004. (Don't ask about '08.) But party insiders, longing for that old Clinton magic, still harbor hope that she might accept the nomination if no clear choice among the rank-and-file emergers by the Democratic National Convention in July. Then, party elders would beg her to step forward to unify divided the Dems. It's a bizarre scenario and a very long shot, but it lingers.

Odds: 100 to 1.

Al Sharpton

The New York civil-rights activist gives a good speech and consistently has the best zingers in the Democratic debates. But he's not going to win -- and he knows it. Instead, his goal is to amass enough delegates that he can be a power broker at a potentially deadlocked convention. "We need leverage to go to the convention with our own delegates," he told BusinessWeek Online on Dec. 17.

So forget about New Hampshire and Iowa, with African-American populations of under 2%. Sharpton's must-perform primaries are South Carolina and Missouri on Mar. 3 and then the Michigan caucuses on Mar. 7. If Dean hasn't wrapped things up by then, the Reverend Al will focus on the vote-rich states of New York and California.

Odds: 1 million to 1.

Carol Moseley Braun

Yes, anybody can run for President. But what makes a one-term senator who couldn't even win reelection in a Democratic-leaning state think she could ever become President? Well, Braun is failing upward. Her campaign has been laughable. Underfunded and chronically disorganized, she's down to a traveling road show with the remnants of the once-mighty National Organization for Women.

She's smart -- and, as she repeats at every appearance, she's a woman -- but so are millions of other Americans who aren't running for President. She should have been smart enough to run for her old Illinois Senate seat instead.

Odds: 100 million to 1.

Dennis Kucinich

The Ohio ultraliberal has one claim to fame that no other candidate can match: He's the only would-be President who presided over the bankruptcy of a major American city. After what he did for (or is it to?) Cleveland as its mayor, imagine what he could do for the U.S. of A.!

His anti-Bush, anti-Dean, anti-business, anti-military, anti-meat-eating campaign has caught on among the farthest reaches of the Hollywood Left, the cool climes of academia, and at the Retirement Home for Socialist Workers. Yes, anybody can run for President.

Odds: 1 billion to 1.

May the New Year bring as much joy and happiness to you as it will to political writers everywhere!

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

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE