N.C. senator joins growing field of Bush challengers in 2004

Democrat Edwards files

8 others in or interested

Field of Democrats grows larger for '04

January 03, 2003|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Undeterred by President Bush's popularity, the largest field of Democratic presidential contenders in years is taking aim at the White House.

Freshman Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina became the latest Democrat to join the 2004 contest yesterday. The wealthy 49-year-old lawyer announced that he was filing a statement of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri are expected to follow suit in coming days. Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Democratic leader in the Senate, is nearing a decision on whether to run.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont have formed presidential campaign committees. Sen. Bob Graham of Florida said recently that he is seriously considering a presidential try.

As many as nine men - there are no women, thus far - are either running or have signaled interest in the race. The party's largest field in recent years was in 1988, when there was no incumbent president running for re-election. That year, seven Democrats made it to the start of the primary season.

At a news conference outside his home in Raleigh, N.C., Edwards said America needs an alternative to Bush and cast himself as different from his Democratic rivals, describing them as "lifelong" politicians. Edwards, whose 1998 Senate run was his first campaign, portrayed the president as someone who governs "too often for insiders," instead of the entire nation.

Edwards said the Bush administration had often catered to corporate interests, including in the fight against terrorism. As an example, he said Bush had failed to do more to secure chemical plants because of resistance from the industry.

But the senator sidestepped questions about why he considers Bush beatable in 2004.

Americans "are waiting, hungry, for somebody to present a clear alternative vision," Edwards said. "I think we ought to start doing it right now."

A decade ago, leading Democrats shied away from challenging Bush's father, whose record approval ratings after the Persian Gulf war made him seem invincible. Bill Clinton, then a relatively obscure governor of Arkansas, went on to defeat a weak field of Democratic rivals for the 1992 nomination, then unseated the president in the general election.

A central lesson of that contest - how quickly a fickle electorate can turn against a popular president - apparently hasn't been lost on the current generation of presidential hopefuls. Prominent among them is Gephardt, who ran for president in 1988 but sat out the 1992 race. He recently gave up his House leadership post in preparation for an all-out White House run.

Others who may join the Democratic chase include the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York City and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, a former NATO supreme commander who lives in Little Rock, Ark.

The decision last month by 2000 nominee Al Gore to skip the race has left the Democrats without a clear favorite in 2004.

"It's probably more like '88 or '92," said Harrison Hickman, a Democratic pollster, recalling the wide-open contests of those years.

At his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he spent the holidays, Bush brushed aside criticism by the Democratic presidential contenders as mere "background noise."

"I'm not paying attention to politics," the president told reporters. "I'm going to continue doing the job the American people expect, which is to safeguard America and Americans. We've got a war on our hands."

Bush said that "one of these days, somebody will emerge" as his Democratic challenger "and we'll tee it up and see who the American people want to lead. And until that happens, I'm going to be doing my job."

A widely held view, in Democratic circles and elsewhere, is that Bush can be defeated only if the economy is weak. But some Democrats, including Edwards, have been attacking his performance on homeland defense. Others, particularly Dean, have questioned his Iraq policy.

"It's wide open, in terms of the agenda as well as the nomination," said Hickman, who is advising Edwards. "I think people are waiting to hear what the candidates have to say before the terms of the debate are set."

Iowa Democratic Chairman Gordon Fischer said his party's presidential aspirants "have made the calculation that if the Bush recession continues in 2003 and 2004, he's going to be vulnerable."

Because of changes in the primary and caucus calendar, the nomination is likely to be decided by March of next year. Fischer said his state, where the national delegate selection process will begin in earnest next January, is as up for grabs as the rest of the country.

"I could make a case for almost any of these guys going on to win the Iowa caucuses," he said.

While Gephardt, who won Iowa in 1988, is the presumed front-runner there, only about one-third of his former supporters have been active in politics in recent years, Fischer said.

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