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Neck and Neck With Many Miles to Go

Democratic candidates for president find themselves unable to break free from the pack in a contest getting even more wide open.

May 12, 2003|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

They have debated up close and afar, raised tens of millions of dollars and practically taken up residence in Iowa and New Hampshire. But not one of the nine Democrats running for president has managed to break free and emerge as a front-runner in the increasingly competitive contest.

If anything, contrary to most expectations, the race appears more wide open now than it was when it began a few months ago.

"Everyone is looking at different harbingers -- money, debate performance, the one big idea -- wondering if maybe that's the differentiating factor," said David Axelrod, a media consultant for Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, one of the nine White House contestants. "The fact is they all have weight. They're all important."

And they all give different candidates a reason to claim success. Edwards raised the most money in the year's first quarter, but Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts ended with the biggest cash reserve. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri has sparked the most discussion with his ambitious health-care proposal, but Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut was widely judged the best performer at last weekend's first face-to-face debate.

Toss in former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who has stirred the most grass-roots enthusiasm, and the result is a race that has "tiered a little bit," separating those five candidates from the rest of the field, said Bill Carrick, a Gephardt strategist. "But I don't think you can say anybody is the front-runner."

Given that, the next phase of the campaign seems obvious, as the Democrats begin to focus less on their criticisms of President Bush and more on the differences among themselves. After all, "Just beating the hell out of Bush doesn't offer much distinction," as David Doak, an unaffiliated Democratic strategist, put it.

So while the candidates continue their long-running argument over the Iraq war, with Dean leading the opposition, they have broadened their debate to include a discussion of taxes, health care, energy policy and the proper size and scope of the federal government. Those issues may resurface Saturday when the Democratic hopefuls share a stage in Des Moines, at a forum held by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Some fret over the increased pushing and shoving, fearing it only helps the opposition. Others welcome the fight.

"We don't need a nominee right now," said Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. "This is an opportunity for the party to recapture the imagination not just of Democrats, but to figure out how we as a party can win again."

"We need a good comprehensive message," Brazile said. "Not just, 'Me too, I'm against terrorism,' but saying what Democrats believe."

The emerging differences among the presidential contenders came into sharpest relief at their first debate May 3, revealing disagreements that seemed as personal in some instances as they were political. The 90 minutes in Columbia, S.C., also gave a glimpse at some of the positioning likely to shape the next several months of the race.

It was hardly accidental that Kerry and Dean began to bicker almost as soon as they took the stage. Each needs to win the lead-off New Hampshire primary Jan. 27 -- surveys show them running neck and neck -- to have much hope of continuing their campaigns.

Gephardt and Edwards, in the meantime, are vying for the same middle-income group of lunch-bucket Democrats, which suggests why Edwards homed in on Gephardt's proposal to guarantee health care to every working American. Edwards called it a corporate giveaway that "takes money directly out of the pockets of working people."

"I couldn't disagree with John more," Gephardt replied. "This is not helping the corporations."

Lieberman, appealing to more-conservative elements of the party, lumped Gephardt's proposal with "big-spending Democratic ideas of the past," suggesting it would take money away from Social Security and Medicare. Further, he insisted no Democrat can win the White House without backing muscular defense and foreign policies, an argument also pressed by Sen. Bob Graham of Florida. ("Close your eyes and it's Karl Rove talking," scoffed Carrick, the Gephardt advisor, referring to Bush's chief political strategist.)

The rest of the Democratic field -- the Rev. Al Sharpton, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois -- are given little chance at winning the nomination and have to elbow to get any attention at all.

Sharpton played the role of peacemaker at the opening debate, urging his fellow candidates to avoid "cheap shots" and warning that "Republicans are watching."

Indeed, any time one candidate attacks another in a primary the danger is that their words will live on, even if their campaign doesn't.

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