Friday, July 25, 2003

Strategists for the Democratic front-runners for president are suggesting that the weakest rivals should consider dropping out of the race to help the top contenders build support in the primaries.

None of the leading candidates for the nomination so far has been willing to openly call on any other hopefuls to abandon their bids. But the campaign of Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts appears to be sending just that message in the hopes of substantially narrowing the field of nine candidates well before the end of the year.

“Party leaders know these underperforming candidates are dead men walking. They can’t raise money, gain traction or develop compelling messages,” a key Kerry campaign strategist said in an interview.

The senior strategist did not mention names, but he implied that it might be better if those at the back of the pack acknowledged what the polls are showing: Their candidacies are not gaining support, the 2004 election year is fast approaching, and Democrats will have a better chance of beating President Bush if the party can coalesce around a candidate sooner rather than later.

“It doesn’t matter if they don’t drop out [now]. Everywhere they go, it’s like watching ‘The Sixth Sense’ when the little kid says, ‘I see dead people.’ The sands are shifting beneath their feet, and the [election] clock is ticking,” said the strategist, referring to the 1999 movie starring Bruce Willis.

An official of another front-running campaign for the Democratic nomination, who spoke on the condition that he and his candidate not be identified, said the party would be helped “if we headed into next year with a smaller number of candidates, and I think we will.”

At present, Mr. Kerry and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean appear to be leading the pack nationally, with Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut behind them.

Party advisers also said this week that the field must be significantly decreased and that probably would happen sometime after Labor Day.

There is a growing feeling in the party’s leadership that several contenders will abandon their races before the end of the year, said one party adviser, who has worked with the Democratic National Committee and with House and Senate Democratic leaders on election strategy. Those candidates have not been able to break out of single digits in most polls for next year’s state primaries.

At least five contenders were stuck in the low single digits in polls for the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary: Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina and Bob Graham of Florida, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York. Among them, only Mrs. Moseley Braun has said she will reassess her candidacy in September.

“Everyone talks about Graham [dropping out] because he is not anywhere in terms of money, endorsements. He’s clearly in the tier of trailing candidates,” the DNC adviser said.

Mr. Edwards has not been able to get his campaign off the ground, and there is wide agreement among party strategists that he will not be among those standing when the primaries begin in January. He draws 6 percent or less in national polls and 5 percent or less in New Hampshire.

The Edwards campaign insisted this week that “he’s in this for the duration.”

“It’s going to take time, particularly with one who does not have high name recognition,” Edwards spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri said. “I think it’s too early to suggest that some candidates should get out of the race.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Gephardt’s significant lead in Iowa has vanished, and he is a distant third in New Hampshire. “Gephardt is teetering on the verge of dropping down to the bottom tier,” a party official said.

Democratic strategist Donna Brazile said she, too, has heard a lot of talk in party circles about urging some candidates to pull out to build early support for the strongest front-runner.

“At some point, we are going to have to winnow down the field, but it is too early to coalesce around a candidate. In the fall, that’s when you will see the candidates begin to thin out,” she said.

“I understand [the front-runners] frustration, but this is why we have a primary system. Let’s see what happens after Labor Day and then determine whether the bottom tier should pack their bags and go home.”

Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, agreed. “I think the shakeout is coming after the third-quarter September fund-raising filing,” when the candidates will report how much campaign money they have raised.

“The next filing is going to be critical. At that point, if you haven’t raised a lot of money, it is going to be very hard to stay competitive,” Mr. Rosenberg said.

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