- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2003

The race for the Democratic presidential nomination has boiled down to two viable candidates: Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

The only reason to include former House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt in this group is because of his (dwindling) lead in the Iowa caucuses. It’s hard to find where the Missouri congressman has strong support anywhere else. He is a distant third in New Hampshire, where Mr. Kerry and Mr. Dean were running neck-and-neck for first place. And Mr. Gephardt’s second-quarter campaign contributions were weak, weakening in turn his once-vaunted support among organized labor.

National pollster John Zogby, who regularly canvasses in Iowa and New Hampshire, thinks Mr. Gephardt cannot be counted out just yet. “It’s either Dean, Kerry or Gephardt,” he says. “I can certainly rule out anybody else.”

Despite the media-perpetuated fallacy that there are other serious contenders, virtually all the remaining candidates are stuck in the single-digit mire in various state-caucus and primary polls.

That means that, even as early as Labor Day, you are going to see some hopefuls drop out. The questions now are who and exactly when?

Freshman Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, a trial lawyer who made millions suing companies, will likely be the first to go. His presidential ambition is perhaps the ultimate example of hubris in elective politics. With little more than two years into his first term, Mr. Edwards now wants to run the country. Outside the fawning articles comparing him to John F. Kennedy, and millions of dollars in campaign contributions from his fellow lawyers, Mr. Edwards’ candidacy has been greeted with a big yawn.

A virtual unknown in his party’s national arena, Mr. Edwards has been unable to break out as a candidate of note, and, even in his own state, local polls show voters would choose Mr. Bush over the senator by a 3-to-2 ratio.

The candidacy of one of the most capable hopefuls, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, is also stalling. While he still scores relatively high on the national polling scales (a byproduct of his exposure as Al Gore’s running mate in 2000), his numbers have been waning lately. Reported tension among his campaign staff and poor showings in key primary states have not helped, either.

“It’s hard for me to see Lieberman in all of this,” Mr. Zogby says.

Mr. Lieberman, a conservative-to-moderate Democrat, also has the misfortune to be running in the midst of a liberal resurgence in the party’s base — a resurgence attributed largely to the Iraq war, a conflict Mr. Lieberman has enthusiastically and consistently supported.

“He is almost an asterisk in Iowa and New Hampshire,” says Republican pollster Robert Moran.

Thus, less than six months before the start of the 2004 election season, Mr. Dean and Mr. Kerry are positioned at the front of the pack in these two early contests that are historically the springboards in the Democratic Party nominating process. “Everyone else is so far behind, you can’t see them,” a party strategist told me.

Notably, only Mr. Dean is in a tie for first place in both states (with Mr. Gephardt in Iowa and with Mr. Kerry in New Hampshire), and seems to be generating the most energy and momentum from the party’s left wing.

Several months ago, he was a little-known insurgent with a small war chest and staff, given little, if any, chance of beating his better-known rivals. But Mr. Dean’s strong, combative antiwar message as the only candidate who represented “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” struck a chord with the once-moribund left, which is opening checkbooks as never before and fueling his drive for the presidency.

Party strategists now say Mr. Dean could win the nomination. If his support base continues to grow at its current pace he could overtake Mr. Kerry, and that, many strategists say, could deal a fatal blow to the Massachusetts liberal.

But all this overlooks broader problems among Democratic voters, many of whom are dissatisfied with their current candidates. The University of New Hampshire Survey Center recently found nearly half the party wanted someone new or said they were still undecided. And 42 percent of New Hampshire Democrats believe Mr. Bush is unbeatable, according to the poll, completed earlier this month.

A party unsure about its chances in 2004 — one without a compelling, mainstream message about terrorism, national security or the economy — needs deep political self-analysis if it’s ever to develop a strong platform that voters can sign up for. But with the liberals back in charge of the Democrats, it may be too late for that … no matter who gets the party nod.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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