- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 8, 2003

The field of nine Democratic presidential candidates will likely shrink by year's end to three or four as the power of polls and money flows to the strongest contenders, party strategists said yesterday.

Less than 10 months before the 2004 presidential caucuses and primaries officially begin, the race for campaign money and rank-and-file support is intensifying among the top five candidates. However, Democratic Party officials and campaign advisers say that only a small number will be left standing at the end of this year's exhaustive pre-primary maneuvering.

"By the fall, the field will winnow down to probably six or seven candidates and sometime by Christmas it will be down to three or four," said Donna Brazile, the veteran party strategist who managed Vice President Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign.

After that, the compressed nomination-selection process is expected to be all but over by mid-March, party officials said.

There are several reasons why the field is expected to narrow quickly, Miss Brazile said. First, money and resources will increasingly move to the candidates who are at or near the front of the pack. This will leave those at the back with little or no financing to crisscross the country, pay their staffs and promote their candidacy. Second, governors, members of Congress and other Democratic officials will be under pressure to endorse the early front-runners over the spring, summer and fall, creating a bandwagon effect that will force some of the weakest candidates to drop out.

Interviews with advisers to most of the Democratic hopefuls found similar agreement that the presidential field will be much leaner by the time the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary contests start the delegate-selection process in January.

"Only those who have substantial finances are going to be able to stay in the race through the year," said a campaign strategist to one of the top tier candidates.

As of today, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who has put together the largest staff of veteran campaigners, is the front-runner in New Hampshire, a pivotal primary that four of the past five Democratic presidential nominees have won.

Mr. Kerry has hired some of Mr. Gore's top talent in recent months, including political consultant Bob Shrum, campaign strategist Michael Whouley and Mr. Gore's chief campaign spokesman, Chris Lehane. No one in any of the camps doubts that Mr. Kerry will be the likely winner in New Hampshire because of his visible next-door neighbor status.

Acknowledging Mr. Kerry's front-runner status there, rivals have already begun playing the numbers expectations game, asserting that he must win big to prove his strength if he is to be competitive in succeeding primaries in South Carolina and elsewhere in the South.

"Kerry maintains a significant lead in New Hampshire," said Jim Demers, a strategist for Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt in the state. "What he needs to do is to maintain that sizeable lead because a win for John Kerry in New Hampshire that is not a big win will be looked @ as no win at all."

A recent New Hampshire poll of Democratic voters showed Mr. Kerry with 26 percent support, followed by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean with 13 percent, Mr. Gephardt with 11 percent and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut at 9 percent. No one else polled more than 2 percent, though 29 percent of voters said they were undecided.

Mr. Gephardt, boasting strong support from organized labor, is still considered the front-runner in Iowa, the nation's first delegate contest where unions have a powerful influence in Democratic contests. Mr. Gephardt won the Iowa caucuses in 1988 when he last ran for the presidential nomination.

Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, a freshman who has been in elective office only four years, started off his candidacy with favorable early press notices from the Washington news media. But several Democratic strategists not associated with any campaign think his star may be dimming, largely because he is little-known in the party at large. Still, he remains a prodigious fund-raiser among his former fellow trial lawyers and with supporters in the movie industry.

Mr. Dean, who began running a shoestring campaign last May, is the intriguing wild card among the top four candidates and the most liberal of them all. He has made more than two dozen trips to New Hampshire, a similar number to Iowa and has been in South Carolina at least eight times. His sharp denunciation of his party's leadership and several of his rivals for supporting President Bush's policies toward Iraq galvanized many rank-and-file party members at last month's Democratic National Committee meeting.

Meantime, no one expects any movement within the bottom tier of candidates who include the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois.

Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, who underwent open-heart surgery Jan. 31, is a late entry into the race, but he, too, is not well known nationally and has yet to get his campaign up and running.

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