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In the Starting Gate, Gephardt and Kerry Are the Early Favorites

With the Iowa Caucuses “only” a little more than a year away, the race for the Democratic nomination is already under way. Does anybody really have an edge?

Probably not.

Former Vice President Al Gore’s exit leaves a field that now seems unable to match President Bush in terms of stature. But sitting presidents usually tower above potential foes at the outset of a campaign, and the race for the Democratic nomination will eventually produce a nominee whose chances will depend more on the president’s standing in the fall of 2004 than on the initial makeup of the party’s field.

[IMGCAP(1)] Without Gore in the race, Democrats don’t have a true frontrunner. But that doesn’t mean all the Democrats start out with the same chance.

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman has plenty of name identification from his 2000 vice presidential bid, and his folksy style will appeal to voters who are looking for authenticity rather than slickness. And, of course, his base in the Jewish community is an asset.

But it’s one thing to be a vice presidential running mate and another thing to be a party’s standard-bearer. Lieberman complemented Gore well, but can he stand on his own? If I were casting a movie of my life, I might choose Lieberman as my funny but thoughtful Jewish uncle, the man who offers sage advice packaged in corny sayings. But does he have the charisma to excite Democratic activists and rank-and-file voters? Since he appears likely to run, we will see.

Outgoing Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is widely described as articulate, smart and ambitious — all good qualities for a presidential wannabe. But in a field with little national name recognition he stands head and shoulders above everyone else in terms of anonymity. Perhaps more importantly, can Dean really raise enough money to run a credible race? And given the problems governors have been having over the past year or so, will his record be an unabashed asset?

[IMGCAP(2)] North Carolina Sen. John Edwards begins with a number of assets and a huge question mark. He’s a skilled orator, has incredible charisma (especially in small groups) and is a trial lawyer, a small but influential community that plays an important role in the Democratic Party. He’s from the South and can make a strong argument about regional appeal and electability. He’s ambitious, and he is attracting plenty of talented political operatives.

But if Edwards’ assets mean that he is qualified to be a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, he could have trouble convincing voters that he is ready to be the president of the United States. At a time when national and domestic security issues are so important, are Democratic primary voters prepared to imagine him as commander in chief? And might some voters see an uncomfortable similarity (in style and geography, not personal private behavior) between Edwards and former President Bill Clinton?

That leaves two Democrats as my initial frontrunners by default: former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (Mo.) and Sen. John Kerry (Mass.).

With demonstrated strength in Iowa, a history of strong support from organized labor, the benefit of years of developing and working national Democratic contacts, demonstrated self-discipline and a team of veteran operatives, Gephardt has enough advantages to make him a co-frontrunner.

But with Gore out of the race, Gephardt also becomes the retread of the field. Will Democratic voters turn to an ultimate political insider who ran for his party’s nomination back in 1988? Or will they want a fresher face, or someone with more pizzazz?

Kerry is a strong media candidate who demonstrated his smarts and debate skills when challenged by former Gov. Bill Weld (R). With a geographic advantage in New Hampshire, military service in Vietnam, a background in national security issues and a strong political team, Kerry has the background and personal skills to appeal to Democratic voters.

But will working-class, rank-and-file Democrats find Kerry’s Brahmin bearing and cool personal style appealing enough, or will they have a hard time “connecting” with him? And will they hesitate to nominate another Massachusetts liberal?

Other Democrats who are also considering bids, such as Gen. Wesley Clark, Florida Sen. Bob Graham and South Dakota Sen. Thomas Daschle, could change the dynamics of the race — and the early handicapping.

Daschle, with a Midwest base and a national reputation, would be a formidable candidate if he truly feels a passion about running for the nomination. And Graham’s Florida base and reputation for self-discipline would make him an interesting contender.

Finally, there is Al Sharpton, another potential candidate. Unable to win his party’s nomination, Sharpton could have an impact on the true contenders.

Like the 1992 Democratic contest, the 2004 race truly starts with no clear frontrunner and no early favorite. That will make it all the more interesting to watch.

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