Field of Dreamers

Democrats build campaigns, hoping voters will come

It already feels like spring in the Democratic Party. Just about every day a new presidential candidate sends up a green shoot to see if he can thrive against a popular Republican incumbent, George W. Bush.

Given this president's high approval ratings, one could understand if many Democrats might have preferred to wait for more favorable political conditions in 2008. That was the party's conventional wisdom in early 1992, when going up against the then-popular Bush senior was seen as too risky. An obscure governor by the name of Bill Clinton, however, proved the fallacy of the wait-till-next-time argument.

Fortunately for the health of America's political system, Democrats appear to have learned the lesson that a lot can happen over the next 22 months. Instead of hibernating, they are blossoming into the largest field of Democratic candidates since 1988.

With five for-sures, a couple of likelies, and several other possibles, voters have plenty of choices. And given the lack of a front-runner, as well as a schedule of primaries in which the first three states could well produce three different winners, voters will have ample opportunity to get to know these men (sorry, it's still just men).

The candidates share many viewpoints: They oppose the Bush tax cuts, criticize his foreign policy (to varying degrees), and see health care as a lead issue. Yet it's worth noting the distinctions that set them apart:

Howard Dean. This former doctor just finished a decade as Vermont's governor. Not surprisingly, universal healthcare tops his list of presidential goals. He also says Bush has not made the case for war with Iraq.

John Edwards. Freshman senator from North Carolina, he's the only Southerner for now. A former trial lawyer, he says he stands for "regular people" and looks to be taking on post-9/11 restrictions on civil liberties as an issue.

Richard Gephardt. The most politically experienced of the bunch. He ran for president in 1988, is serving his 14th term as a congressman from Missouri, and recently resigned as House minority leader after failing to put Democrats back in control of that chamber. He also has close ties to organized labor.

John Kerry. The junior senator from Massachusetts and a decorated Vietnam War veteran, he's making security and foreign policy his trademark issues.

Al Sharpton. The only African-American candidate, he's a controversial civil rights leader from New York who's running to prevent the contest from becoming just a competition among "rich white men."

This ample list does not even count two very likely candidates: Connecticut's Sen. Joe Lieberman, Al Gore's running mate in 2000; and South Dakota's Tom Daschle, former Senate majority leader. Other possibles: Sen. Bob Graham (Florida); Sen. Christopher Dodd (Connecticut); Sen. Joseph Biden (Delaware); former Sen. Gary Hart (Colorado); and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, former NATO commander.

How are Americans to judge this roster? Perhaps this is the election in which a candidate's views and experience relating to foreign policy actually count for something. For if anything brought the world to America's doorstep, it was Sept. 11.

If the election were held today, jobs and the economy would drive votes, and the administration appears vulnerable in areas like the environment and healthcare, and even on Senator Edwards's civil-liberties issue.

But if it's electability, not just ideas, that counts, Americans should keep in mind that not since 1960, when John F. Kennedy narrowly won, has a presidential candidate jumped directly from Congress to the White House. The last two Democrats in the Oval Office were Southern governors, yet this list is loaded with members of Congress from the frost belt.

On the basis of these criteria, there's no sure-fire Democrat. Political experience like that of Mr. Gephardt could just strike voters as too much inside-the-beltway. A social liberal and fiscal conservative like Mr. Dean, who has been likened to the moderate fictional President Bartlet on NBC's "West Wing," may never rise from obscurity.

Over the coming year, voters can determine who among the Democrats could effectively carry the war on terrorism forward, keep the economy robust, and balance domestic and foreign issues. Such are the tasks of today's presidency, and George W. Bush thus far has shown a deft ability to finesse most, if not all, of the list.

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