HANDICAPPING presidential runs is never a simple undertaking. But we feel safe in saying that Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich and former Illinois senator Carol Moseley-Braun, both of whom took the first steps this week toward candidacies for the 2004 Democratic nomination, are entering the race as long shots. Both start with little in the way of money, organization or a significant base of supporters. Neither Midwesterner is especially well known among the party faithful. But in Democratic presidential primaries, where interest groups carry a disproportionate degree of influence, Mrs. Moseley-Braun, the Senate's first elected African American woman, and Mr. Kucinich, a leading congressional opponent of President Bush's Iraq policy, may end up making a little noise of their own.

Mr. Kucinich bills himself as the "candidate for peace" and a proponent of federally guaranteed health care and a livable wage for all. His advocacy of a federal "Department of Peace," strong opposition to the resolution authorizing military action against Iraq and support for issues embraced by organized labor, such as the nullification of NAFTA, have already helped make him co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, home to the House's most liberal members. He counts on being the most anti of all the antiwar candidates for president and the most populist of any Democratic candidate with populist leanings.

Mrs. Moseley-Braun's entry presents a much different alternative to Democrats. Less ideological, the former senator is expected to focus on the party's core constituents, counting on her appeal to women and African American voters as well as Democratic antiwar activists. Having once supported a crime bill that would give the death penalty to 13-year-old offenders, Mrs. Moseley-Braun hardly comes across as a strong competitor for her party's progressive vote. The notion that she is entering the race to drain attention from the Rev. Al Sharpton has been floated, mainly by her detractors. Given the threat the New York minister-activist poses to other candidates hoping to pitch their campaigns more to moderate, suburban Democratic voters, the speculation about her motives may have some currency.

Despite their differences, Mrs. Moseley-Braun and Mr. Kucinich have something in common besides party affiliation and their Midwest origins: Both have checkered political careers. Elected at age 31 as "boy mayor" of Cleveland in 1977, Mr. Kucinich barely survived a recall movement less than a year later and was defeated for reelection in 1979. After winning a city council seat at age 23, he lost House races in 1972, 1974 and then in 1992 before winning a seat in the Ohio legislature and being elected in 1996 to the House seat he now occupies. Mrs. Moseley-Braun, too, has had her ups and downs. In addition to her U.S. Senate first, she was the first woman and first African American in Illinois history to be assistant majority leader in the state legislature. But the former federal prosecutor and ambassador to New Zealand also had a controversial term in the Senate, fighting off accusations of misuse of campaign funds and questions about an eyebrow-raising, month-long post-election trip to Africa with a campaign manager and then-fiance.

It's still early, and the Democratic field is large and growing. But could it be that Mrs. Moseley-Braun and Mr. Kucinich are answering their own -- rather than their party's -- call?