Long shots line up

January 15, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - The long-awaited entry of Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut into the 2004 Democratic presidential race swells the number of ambitious politicians generally regarded as undertaking a fool's errand against the super-popular President Bush.

Even with reminders that George W.'s father was seen to be in a similarly commanding position in the run-up to his failed re-election bid in 1992, none of the 10 or more declared or possible candidates is widely rated now as clearly having the right stuff to topple a "wartime president."

That designation so eagerly and emphatically assigned to Mr. Bush by his wily political managers who understand its potency at the polls may or may not have driven former Vice President Al Gore and Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle to the sidelines.

It hasn't intimidated, however, the large field that now also includes Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, former House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton. Also cogitating in the wings are Sens. Bob Graham of Florida, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Joseph Biden of Delaware, former Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado and peace advocate Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio.

Of these, only Mr. Kerry, Mr. Dean, Mr. Graham and Mr. Kucinich appear ready to challenge the "wartime president" on the police action he is leading against terrorism and on the all-out war he is threatening against Iraq. The others apparently hope that the issue of a flagging economy that didn't work for the Democrats in November will sufficiently worsen to give them winning ammunition in 2004.

Beyond their collective lack of luster, the new campaign finance reform law barring unregulated "soft" money in presidential campaigns will put all of them at a great disadvantage against the Bush fund-raising dynamo.

The realities of the 2004 Democratic nomination fight are obliging the pack to start now to lure campaign contributions if the candidates hope to compete in the early party presidential primaries. That's why the race is on this early. Under the law, only contributions raised starting in 2003 are eligible for the federal matching subsidy to candidates.

But why, with the outlook for success seeming so dim, would all these Democrats take on the long, hard campaign grind? Two quick answers are named Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, who bucked the odds-makers and found themselves in the White House.

A third is that, for all the popularity of the incumbent now, considerable uncertainty looms in foreign as well as domestic affairs, and polls indicate that Mr. Bush the man is more popular than his policies.

Also, there is no clear frontrunner among the Democrats with Mr. Gore out.

Still another is the age of some of the candidates. Mr. Lieberman, Mr. Gephardt, Mr. Graham, Mr. Biden and Mr. Hart are in their 60s, so 2004 might be their last chance. And the younger ones know that it sometimes takes more than once around the track to become a serious contender.

As for the longest shots, such as Mr. Sharpton and Mr. Kucinich, they appear to be looking at a presidential campaign as a means of gaining a platform for their particular causes. Nothing draws the TV cameras and talk shows like a candidacy.

As for Mr. Hart, still a serious policy thinker who is eager to join the debate as a candidate or some other way, it could be a personal as well as a political rehabilitation.

Yet to come may still be a Democratic Steve Forbes or Ross Perot - a wealthy hopeful who sees his presidency only in his own eyes and is willing to plunk down millions of his own money to roll the dice.

In any event, the prize of national leadership seems to be more than enough for a dozen, or even more, Democrats to jump in and take up the most grinding political undertaking the election process has to offer - even if the eventual reward is only an asterisk in the history books.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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