Democrats' early lineup in 2004 race

After Labor Day, presidential campaign shifts into high gear with debates, ads, and wild cards.

In the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination, the preseason has ended and now the regular season starts. At least, that's what advisers to candidates who aren't Howard Dean are saying.

It's as if all the polls and fundraising and rallies that preceded Labor Day, the traditional kickoff to the presidential primary race, somehow don't count. But they do. And with former Vermont Governor Dean leading in early-primary-state polls and set to smash fundraising records for the third quarter of 2003, the best his leading opponents can promise is that they will be the ones to face off against Dean, head to head, when the balloting starts in January.

At this moment of stock-taking, the most burning question is whether Dean can maintain his momentum and prove that his campaign isn't peaking too soon. For Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the party establishment's favorite for the nomination, who formally launches his campaign today in South Carolina, the question is whether he can recover from an inauspicious start.

For Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, the other top-tier Democrat, the task is to do well enough against the other two in Iowa - perhaps even winning there - and New Hampshire to claim the mantle of "comeback kid."

One point analysts agree upon is that the race to go up against President Bush in November 2004 isn't over.

"While Kerry's candidacy has certainly not taken off, he has yet to make any serious mistakes," says Charles Cook, editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "I think that this is more a factor of Dean's candidacy exploding ... than Kerry's underperforming. It is still a very well funded, technically proficient campaign with a candidate who is not bad at all."

In the next six weeks, the campaign's pace will accelerate. The nine Democratic candidates will go toe-to-toe in four debates, the first of which is Thursday in Albuquerque. Some, including Senator Kerry and Congressman Gephardt, will also start airing TV ads, joining Dean and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who took to the airwaves over the summer. Dean is going one better, flexing his financial muscle with a $1 million ad buy that seeks to take his campaign national. Ads are now airing in Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Washington state, and Wisconsin, all of which hold nominating contests soon after Iowa and New Hampshire.

The Dean campaign predicts it will have taken in at least $10.3 million for the third quarter, ending Sept. 30, which would match President Clinton's fundraising for the same period in 1995. Privately, officials from other campaigns suggest Dean's confidence means he'll take in a lot more.

But fundraising and ads are only part of the equation. If Dean's message - scoring Bush over the Iraq war - has taken hold with the Democratic base, political analysts say Dean will need increasingly to talk about what he would do as president.

A debate among the Democrats is now forming over taxes - whether to repeal some or all of Bush's tax cuts, as the federal budget deficit skyrockets. Dean and Gephardt would eliminate all of Bush's cuts, while Kerry, Senator Edwards, Florida Sen. Bob Graham, and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman would keep and expand middle-class tax cuts.

Many Democratics are undecided, and how Dean will wear as the spotlight gets brighter remains to be seen. The Oct. 7 recall election in California could help Dean, says independent pollster John Zogby.

"As we begin to shift more focus to California, that's going to freeze things in place, and it's better to be frozen up than frozen down for a couple of months," says Mr. Zogby, whose latest poll out of New Hampshire showing Dean ahead of Kerry by 21 points - 38 percent for Dean, 17 for Kerry - still has the political world buzzing.

"I also think it'll be difficult for the other candidates to attack Dean," says Zogby. "He seems to have a very loyal base in Iowa and New Hampshire. In Iowa and New Hampshire, you have Dean Democrats," much the way Sen. John McCain of Arizona captivated a loyal chunk of the electorate in the 2000 Republican primaries.

But it's also possible that Dean's role will be to soften up the president, like a prize fighter, only to see a more seasoned national Democrat, such as a Gephardt or a Kerry, emerge and win over enough primary voters to win the nomination.

"If Democrats are convinced that Bush can be beaten, then I think it opens up for them to explore other candidates and ask themselves, what kind of president do we want," says Dick Bennett, an independent pollster in New Hampshire.

The wild card is the possible entry into the Democratic field by Gen. Wesley Clark, former allied commander of NATO, who has said he'll announce a decision by mid-September. Most observers believe it's too late to make a credible run, but General Clark seems to be on many pundits' short lists for a vice presidential candidate.

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