Democrats look toward 2004

Experienced congressional veterans lining up for presidential race

Posted: Wednesday, January 08, 2003

WASHINGTON -- The Democratic presidential field for 2004 is rapidly taking shape -- with a heavy emphasis on congressional veterans with experience in foreign policy, military and intelligence matters.

But two already in the race don't fit that mold: a blunt-spoken Vermont governor and a freshman senator from North Carolina who argues his role as a relative ''outsider'' gives him a better understanding of regular people.

The Democratic field grew to four Thursday with the North Carolina senator, John Edwards, and departing House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt, a seasoned lawmaker who is forming an exploratory committee.

They joined Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, a Vietnam war hero with significant experience in international affairs, and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

The field is likely to grow to more than a half-dozen in the next week or so -- with the entry of veteran lawmakers like Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who was the vice presidential candidate in 2000, and Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota senator.

''I expect several more people to get into the race and I look forward to it,'' Kerry said Thursday after attending the inauguration of the state's new Republican governor, Mitt Romney. ''I think it's an opportunity for the country to test leaders and test their ideas.''

Sens. Bob Graham of Florida and Joe Biden of Delaware, two senators with plenty of experience in national security matters, are pondering running. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark of Little Rock, Ark., the former supreme commander of NATO, is also mentioned as a possible candidate. And the Rev. Al Sharpton is planning to form an exploratory committee later this month.

Edwards, a trial lawyer and first-term senator, is wading into this steep competition with an unusual -- but necessary -- strategy. He's boasting about his short time in Washington.

Though he has little experience on the national stage, Edwards said, ''I'm more than happy to be judged on the basis of my ideas.''

''If the American people want a lifelong politician in the White House, that's not me. They'll have a group of people to choose from if that's what they want,'' he said. ''If they want instead somebody who is closer to them, more connected to them and spent his entire life fighting for them and comes from them, that is me.''

Edwards' strategy is so audacious it could either fail miserably or surprise a lot of people. He's hoping his appealing personal style could overcome some concerns about his experience.

''Edwards has got as good a shot as anybody, but it remains to be seen how well he will perform,'' said Emory political scientist Merle Black. ''He has Shakespearean ambition. Most freshmen would defer.''

Michigan State political scientist David Rohde said all candidates ''try to trade on their experience.'' And he noted that Edwards will have about the same time in politics as President Bush had when he ran in 2000.

''I doubt if we'll hear much from President Bush about Edwards' experience level,'' he said.

The field is generally lacking politicians with executive experience, said Black.

''Experience is very important and especially executive experience,'' he said. ''That's what's missing from the pool this year. Where are the governors?''

The two with executive experience are Florida Sen. Graham, a former governor of that state, and Vermont Gov. Dean, who is also a physician.

Dean has spent a great deal of time in early states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. And when state officials are handicapping the field, they usually recommend closely watching Dean, who has impressed party activists in those states with his matter-of-fact style and his accomplishments as Vermont governor.

While the veteran senators and longtime House leader Gephardt clearly have the edge in experience, historians point out that few politicians move directly from Congress to the presidency. The last was John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Any Democrat nominated is likely to face a tough battle ousting an incumbent president in wartime, said congressional historian Ross Baker of Rutgers.

''When the country is in danger,'' Baker said, ''there tends to be a preference to hold onto what you have and not make changes.''

Will Lester covers politics and polling for The Associated Press.

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