The first significant test of the 2004 presidential campaign takes place in Washington this weekend as the Democratic candidates troop before party leaders from across the country who will have one overriding question on their minds: Can anyone beat President Bush?
The battle for the Democratic nomination -- as wide open as any since 1988 -- is in its opening phase and the unsettled international situation means the candidates may face a very different landscape after a possible war with Iraq. Yet many Democratic activists have convinced themselves that the president, like his father a dozen years ago, is a far-from-certain bet for reelection.
Twelve years ago, Bill Clinton lit up a similar gathering in Chicago with a performance that helped propel him to the front of the Democratic ranks. The current candidates know that a strong showing before the Democratic National Committee (DNC) today and Saturday could boost their fundraising, build activist support and attract endorsements that will lend heft to their campaigns.
"Any of these candidates who can really come out of there with people saying 'wow' will profit," said former White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes.
Strategists in both parties agree on two things about the Democratic race. First, the field includes several well-credentialed, experienced candidates -- a group more like the field in the 1976 contest that included several heavyweights (though the battle was won by dark horse Jimmy Carter), rather than the 1988 field dubbed the "seven dwarfs."
Second, no one has developed a sufficiently positive or compelling general election message to challenge the president. "I don't think anyone has made the case yet in a vivid way to disqualify Bush from continuing to be president," said one strategist who played a key role in Al Gore's 2000 campaign.
The Democratic field already has eight contenders and threatens to grow, but there is no obvious front-runner. This weekend, each of the declared candidates will have 10 minutes to speak in the meeting's public sessions.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), former Illinois senator Carol Moseley-Braun, former House minority leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) and former Vermont governor Howard Dean will speak today. Al Sharpton, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio) and Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) are to speak on Saturday. Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) is on Saturday's agenda but is listed as doubtful because of his recent surgery for prostate cancer.
The candidates will also court party leaders in private sessions. At this point, the contenders are focused more on winning the nomination than on explaining how they can defeat Bush. Each will argue that there is a plausible route to the nomination, even if it takes a lucky break or two.
Kerry and Gephardt begin with perhaps the most obvious routes to the nomination because of their strengths in the first two states to vote. Gephardt starts with a base in Iowa, where he won the caucuses in 1988. Kerry leads in his neighboring state of New Hampshire. Gephardt will aim his populist message at blue-collar workers, senior citizens and rural voters. Kerry appeals more to Democratic elites, upscale suburbanites and portions of the Democratic establishment.
Gephardt hopes to win Iowa, finish strong in New Hampshire the next week and win Missouri the third week. He will aggressively pursue support from elected officials and party leaders who are automatic "super delegates" to the national convention. Among the candidates, he has the closest ties to organized labor, but has no guarantee of an endorsement.
"It's pretty clear for Dick what he has to do," said John Weaver, top strategist for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2000 and now a Democratic strategist. "It's not a very tricky strategy, but the devil will be in the execution."
Gephardt hopes to turn his biggest potential weakness, his longevity in office -- he was first elected to the House in 1976 -- into an asset. His advisers say he will show he is not a candidate of the past by offering bold solutions to big problems and by winning the battle of ideas with his rivals.
Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, says he can challenge Bush on foreign policy and national security. But he will have to overcome memories of the previous bid of a Massachusetts liberal (Michael S. Dukakis in 1988) who lost the presidency to Bush's father.
Kerry must win neighboring New Hampshire, as Dukakis did in 1988. Kerry's aggressiveness in Iowa early this year suggests he will play hard there, as well. A strong showing in Iowa could damage Gephardt and demonstrate that Kerry is not merely a regional candidate.
With the potential to tap his personal fortune and that of his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, the Massachusetts senator should have more money than the other candidates. "He's the easiest one to get into the second or third wave of primaries," a Democratic pollster said.
Edwards has just four years of experience in the Senate and little background in foreign policy. But advisers believe he has exactly the qualities that Gore lacked in 2000: a likable personality and an innate ability to connect with voters.
Judging from his Wednesday trip to New Hampshire, the strategy shows promise. At a factory just outside Concord, Edwards's "I'm-one-of-you" message left several in the audience swooning. "He gave me goose bumps," said worker Bonnie Robbins, "because I felt he was really talking at my level. It's been a long time since we had anybody who really cared about us."
Said one Democratic strategist: "His plausibility is that he turns out to be the most exciting candidate in a field that may be a little gray."
Edwards's supporters say his retail campaign skills remind them of fellow southerner Clinton, but he lacks Clinton's deep understanding of policy. His southern roots attract some Democrats -- and worry some Republicans -- who know that the only Democrats to make it to the White House since John F. Kennedy have been from the South.
Geographically, Edwards will hope to survive Iowa and New Hampshire, and burrow into South Carolina, the first southern state on the primary calendar.
Lieberman has a national reputation as the party's 2000 vice presidential nominee. Many strategists believe that, as a hawkish, centrist Democrat who speaks easily about faith and values, he is well-positioned to compete for swing votes in a general election. But they say he may be ill-positioned to compete for his party's nomination.
Lieberman, popular with many Jewish donors, should have plenty of money. What he lacks is an obvious state for scoring an early victory. McCain privately urged him to skip Iowa, as McCain did in 2000, because he is too conservative to appeal to the left-leaning caucus constituency there. So far, Lieberman has ignored that advice.
As a New Englander, Lieberman could have appeal in New Hampshire and will try to attract independent voters, as McCain did. But with Kerry and Dean living just across New Hampshire's border, he cannot claim any regional advantage. Democratic strategists expect Lieberman to focus on a state such as Arizona or Michigan, both of which will have early primaries, and to hope to survive Iowa and New Hampshire and begin to develop momentum later.
Dean has gained a foothold with some liberal Democrats with his antiwar rhetoric, and more than one Democratic strategist predicted that he will derail the aspirations of at least one better-known and better-funded rival. His goal will be to beat expectations in Iowa and New Hampshire, and hope to ride that momentum into other states. But he may lack the money to compete aggressively as the campaign quickly expands to big states throughout the nation.
Dean's advisers say they believe he will be well-positioned on issues even if there is a successful war in Iraq. "He never intended to be the antiwar candidate," one strategist said. "He ran for president because he thought Bush was pursuing reckless, irresponsible fiscal policies."
Sharpton, Kucinich and Moseley-Braun are wild cards, potential niche candidates who could drain support on the left from the others. Sharpton and Moseley-Braun will make it more difficult for the other candidates to appeal to African Americans.
Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) is recuperating from heart surgery, but he said yesterday that he will file papers to create a presidential committee. He would bring a hefty resume to the race: He served two terms as governor, he is in his fourth term as senator and he is a former chairman of the Senate intelligence committee. He is also well-positioned in the most important state in the 2000 election. Said one strategist: "He's a serious player. I wouldn't underestimate him."
Other potential candidates include retired Gen. Wesley Clark, former senator Gary Hart (Colo.), Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.).