Democrats' 2004 race opens wide

With Gore out, the field of candidates is open to new faces.

With Al Gore out of the 2004 presidential race, the field of potential Democratic contenders may have temporarily decreased by one - but before long, it's likely to get a lot more crowded.

For one thing, Mr. Gore's decision not to run clears a path for his former running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who has been laying the groundwork for a campaign of his own but had said he wouldn't run if Gore did. Monday, Mr. Lieberman said he is "very seriously" considering a run and would make an announcement in early January.

But the field is also left without an obvious front-runner, making the nomination fight among the remaining top candidates far more competitive, and even opening the door to a host of lesser-known picks. No contender is likely to have an overwhelming advantage in raising money or winning the support of party activists, say analysts, making it possible for a relatively large number of candidates to stick it out at least through the early round of primaries next year.

On one level, this could actually make things tougher for Democrats: Given that the eventual nominee is likely to face a difficult - and extremely expensive - fight against a popular president, a brutal, drawn-out primary battle could drain valuable resources and weaken the party.

But the boost Democrats gain from shedding the perceived baggage of Gore's 2000 loss could more than compensate. And over the next 12 months, the party has the opportunity to garner additional energy and buzz as they introduce a wide variety of "fresh faces" to the public.

"Democrats - and the rest of the country - will actually get to know a fair number of these candidates over the next year," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "I don't know that that would have happened with Gore in the race. He was the black hole of media coverage, and there just wasn't very much light left for others. Now, they're all going to get their share."

For now, the likely field of Democratic contenders seems remarkably evenly matched. According to a recent survey of Democratic voters in New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina - traditionally the states with the three earliest contests - the battle in each state becomes far more competitive without Gore. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts becomes the favorite in New Hampshire, Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri narrowly tops the list in Iowa, and South Carolina remains up for grabs. The number of undecided voters in all three states is high.

Senator Kerry, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, and the Rev. Al Sharpton have already declared their candidacies, and a few others - including Lieberman, former House minority leader Gephardt, and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina - are expected to follow shortly.

Gore's announcement may draw some other contenders into the race as well. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, whose candidacy had looked less certain in the wake of the party's 2002 midterm defeats, may now decide to run. He would be the only candidate currently holding a party leadership position - and while that could make it harder for him to squeeze in those crucial trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, it could also give him the advantage of a national profile and a built-in fundraising network.

There's also renewed talk of some dark-horse candidates entering the race, such as Connecticut's other senator, Chris Dodd, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, or even Gen. Wesley Clark, a former NATO commander.

Analysts say Gore's presence in the race would likely have limited the number of other contenders to two or three at the most. But now "we'll get a much wider and expanded field," says Christopher Arterton, a political scientist at George Washington University. "A lot of people who had been thinking about not running will probably rethink that decision."

Making his announcement on "60 Minutes" on Sunday night, Gore said his primary reason for not running was that he didn't want the election to become a rehash of 2000.

But he also may have realized he was not going to have an easy road to the nomination. Polls showed that while he remained the front-runner, a sizable number of party officials were opposed to his nomination. In recent weeks, Democrats ranging from Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts to Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota publicly urged Gore not to run.

Still, Gore's abrupt decision took many Democrats by surprise. The former vice president had spent much of the past month on a media blitz, promoting his new book on families and speaking out on a range of political issues, leading many observers to conclude he was planning another run. The night before his announcement, he appeared on "Saturday Night Live," where he spoofed his famous convention kiss with Tipper and made pretend phone calls to Russian President Vladimir Putin from the Oval Office set of the show "The West Wing."

"There's a certain amount of shock out there," says Democratic strategist David Axelrod. "It was a sport within the Democratic Party to pummel Gore, yet he was a guy who brought instant strength and mastery of the issues to the game."

Gore's absence from the race may also have deprived his primary opponents of the chance to try to beat him and gain the momentum and strength that would come with such a "giant killer" victory.

Gore said his decision was not based on whether he thought he could win, and he said he believes that the eventual Democratic nominee will have a good shot against President Bush.

Yet he also did not rule out the possibility of a future run, which could mean in part that he has decided 2004 might simply be a good year to sit on the sidelines.

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