The second-tier presidential candidates are hoping a "Dean Scream" will topple one of the three Democratic front-runners and give them an opening.
No Democratic candidate has been willing to publicly take off the gloves to attack the leaders — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina — but their staffers are keeping a close eye on the top-tier candidates.
The press also has been watching the front-runners, and the so called "second-tier" Democrats — Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson — have been struggling to grab reporters' attention, attract voters and raise campaign cash.
An underlying current in private conversations with campaign staffers is that Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama can't sustain their momentum. The collapse in 2004 of one-time front-runner Howard Dean shows how much the field can change in the nearly 200 days before the Democratic showdown.
Instead of working to take down the front-runners, the second-tier candidates are trying to blaze their own trails by playing down the hype and playing up their experience and electability.
"With all the profound challenges facing America, you'd think we'd be talking about the very real issues before us," Mr. Dodd wrote in an e-mail to supporters over the weekend. "Troop cuts, not haircuts. Energy choices, not song choices. Baghdad, not Paris."
Those three sentences managed to slam two candidates and the press: Mr. Edwards, for being exposed as getting a $400 haircut and now using the publicity to raise money; Mrs. Clinton, for generating days of press for letting voters choose her campaign theme song and announcing the winner in a "Sopranos" spoof video; and the press, for its coverage of Paris Hilton's stay in jail.
"The traditional media claims they talk about those issues because that's what you want to hear about," Mr. Dodd continued, adding that "bold solutions and leadership on our most pressing challenges are what we should be talking about."
Mr. Biden has adopted a similar refrain, keeping a steady focus on his Iraq plan and telling voters that he is the most experienced in the field of candidates as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Valerie Biden Owens, his sister and national campaign chairman, said in a fundraising e-mail that she is hopeful her brother can break into the top tier.
"I've been there at event after event as people walk up to Joe and tell him they showed up supporting another candidate but are walking away a Biden supporter," she wrote.
Mr. Richardson regularly trots out his "I'm not a rock star" stump line, asking voters to consider supporting him even though he doesn't have the same appeal as the front-runners.
"They never got to me on anything," Mr. Richardson complained after a foreign-policy speech last week that he had not been asked about Iran at two Democratic debates. "They were trying to provoke a fight among the three in the top tier. I'm getting up there."
The second-tier candidates will fall well short of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama in fundraising, both of whom are trailed by Mr. Edwards in polls and money, but the second-tier campaigns say the top three will need more money to keep their poll standings as the primary contests draw closer.
The Obama campaign announced yesterday that he raised a record of at least $32.5 million for the quarter and a total of $55.7 million from 258,000 donors since he jumped into the race. Mrs. Clinton's campaign said last week that it expects to raise $27 million, and the Edwards campaign said yesterday that it will report more than $9 million raised this quarter from nearly 100,000 donors.
The second-tier candidates often note that polls at this time in the 2004 cycle showed Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut as the front-runner for the nomination, and they also say that Mr. Dean, a former Vermont governor, was once the darling of the press. But a weak showing in the Iowa caucuses and an unscripted moment captured on camera and later dubbed the "Dean Scream" effectively killed his candidacy.
Most of the candidates will be in Iowa next week to campaign for caucus votes. Mrs. Clinton is bringing along her husband, former President Bill Clinton, for major campaign rallies, and Mr. Obama is expected to generate big crowds in the state.
Mr. Dodd — joined by singer Paul Simon, a supporter — and Mr. Biden will be there, too, but will have to compete for headlines. Mr. Richardson will have New Hampshire to himself, and Mr. Edwards is planning to stay home in North Carolina during the holiday.
The second-tier candidates promise clean campaigning, but their staffers are willing to distribute findings from their own opposition research teams. Most say they don't have a video camera trained on their rivals, but someone recently posted an unflattering video of Mr. Edwards sneezing and then shaking a supporter's hand.
Edwards strategist Joe Trippi, who worked for Mr. Dean in 2004, just weeks before had predicted the power of Web video means a presidential candidate this cycle is "probably going to have a 'macaca' moment," referring to a comment Sen. George Allen made during his failed re-election bid in Virginia last year.
"Maybe even one of the front-runners will be caught in an unguarded moment" by someone with a cell-phone camera, he said at an Internet and politics forum.
Jonathan Prince, Mr. Edwards' deputy campaign manager, said last week that he expects his boss to move beyond the No. 3 slot.
"I don't think we're worried about anyone locking anything up in June," he said.
"It's pointless to worry about who is in the lead," Mr. Trippi echoed.