It's not too early to prepare for the '04 race

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Let's look at what may lie ahead as the campaign for president in '04 has its early beginnings.

Who are the early front- runners for the Democratic nominee?

Polls among registered Democratic voters put Joe Lieberman in front, slightly above John Kerry. Richard Gephardt and Tom Daschle are a bit behind these two, with the rest of the current field - John Edwards, Howard Dean and Al Sharpton - far back.

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Most political observers call such early polls "meaningless" - they merely record which candidates' names are recognized.

Yet early recognition is helpful to candidates. Don't be surprised too much if Mr. Lieberman and Mr. Kerry are still out front at primary time with Mr. Gephardt close behind. There's a question now whether Mr. Daschle will make the run; his top advisers are urging him to stay on as minority leader.

But can we expect surprises?

Of course. We've already had a surprise that has rocked the political world: the decision by Al Gore to drop out of contention. I don't know of a political observer who didn't think that Mr. Gore would run. I think Gore was leaning toward making the race until a recent book tour revealed scant interest in his book. He also discovered that few Democratic politicians around the country were still rooting for him.

Up to that point, Al Gore had been looking at polls that showed him far out in front of any of the possible Democratic contenders. But then he looked at new polls showing that a large number of Democrats didn't want him to run again. And so, as I see it, Gore simply changed his mind.

Any other big surprises?

Well, a war that goes bad could certainly shift the scene. Remember how Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater by a landslide in 1964 and then withdrew his candidacy for reelection four years later because of the public's reaction to growing US casualties in the Vietnam War?

Perhaps there will be no war with Iraq - although war seems more and more likely. And it could be a quick one, like the Gulf War, with few US casualties. But should that war turn sour with many body bags returning - well, the public's negative reaction could affect President Bush's decision about seeking reelection. But this scenario is not at all likely.

A war turning bad could bring about a more likely surprise: a late entry by Sen. Hillary Clinton. She has vowed she won't run in '04 - but politicians have changed their minds before on the nonrunning pledge.

Bobby Kennedy became a very late entry in the spring of 1968 when he decided his presence in the presidency was needed to end the war.

If Mrs. Clinton decides to jump in, it will have to be earlier. There are so many early state primaries now. She would have to participate in at least some of them or lose any chance of gaining the nomination.

What if Lieberman holds his lead all the way?

He would be making history. He would be the first Jewish presidential nominee from a major party and the first Jewish president. Yes, I know that the Goldwaters had been Jewish before a forebear had changed Goldwasser to Goldwater and turned the family into Episcopalians.

But most voters looked upon Goldwater as having a Protestant affiliation. Further, of course, he didn't make it beyond the GOP nomination.

So Lieberman, if he would make it all the way, would be the first Jew to become president. He would open the door to Jews to hold the highest office in our land. And in so doing he would do what John F. Kennedy did for Roman Catholics.

I recall so vividly: Before Kennedy, we political reporters would, automatically, eliminate any promising politician from any list of possible candidates for president if he were a Catholic. But now: I have no idea who of the candidates are Catholic - and couldn't care less.

And so, if Lieberman makes it, he will open up the American dream to a group of Americans who unfairly have been left out.

Lieberman just might do it, too. He has such an appealing way about him. He's so bright, so witty, so well-informed.

People may have forgotten, but when Gore picked Lieberman to be his running mate, Gore was behind Mr. Bush in the polls. Lieberman immediately won public favor in his TV appearances, and his presence on the ticket enabled Gore to rise above Bush in the polls at the Democratic convention.

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