WASHINGTON -- Battered Democrats, trying to keep President Bush from dominating the nation's agenda, are struggling to find a voice and fill a leadership vacuum as former President Clinton's influence recedes.
No one individual looms over the party at this point as a potential 2004 front-runner.
Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore are fading in stature as the party's two most influential Democrats.
Instead, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle have emerged as the top faces of the party as it seeks to rebuild itself after losing the White House and being tarred by the controversies surrounding Clinton's departing pardons and other deeds.
''People did not like these actions, there's no two ways about it. President Clinton did a lot of good things as president. He did some bad things. ... It's time to move on,'' said Gephardt, D-Mo.
Bush's submission of his first budget, with its centerpiece $1.6 trillion tax cut, gave Democrats something tangible last week to focus on after days of having to defend their former president.
Remarkably, one of the Democrats whose profile has risen the most in recent days is not a prospective party leader -- but 83-year-old Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia.
A former majority leader and long a revered figure on the political scene, Byrd has become a principal critic of Bush's tax cut as senior Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. With impeccable character credentials, Byrd is a comfortable father figure for many Democrats as they attempt to regain their footing.
One reason the party lacks apparent future leaders is because, up until now, ''Clinton has so usurped the space in a counterproductive way,'' said Fred Greenstein, a Princeton University professor of politics and author of a book on presidential leadership.
With the next presidential election still nearly four years away, contenders ''will move to the forefront through the natural competitive process. It's just hard to see now where anyone's coming from,'' Greenstein said.
That doesn't mean there aren't stirrings and rumblings.
Gore has stayed out of the limelight after losing to Bush. But he has to be considered a major force if he decides to run again. He has a cadre of supporters and ample financial resources.
Likewise, Gephardt has many backers poised to flock to his side. Daschle, D-S.D., has been winning respect among colleague for his legislative skills and is also seen as a possible contender.
Former Gore running mate Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut is also in the mix. Other Democrats viewed as potential candidates: Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana, John Edwards of North Carolina, John Kerry of Massachusetts; former Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, who was defeated by Gore in the 2000 primaries.
Much has happened since Clinton left office Jan. 20.
Then, most Democrats seemed content to honor him as the titular head of their party, anticipating his potent fund-raising help for the 2002 midterm elections. Party officials had few qualms about installing longtime Clinton friend Terry McAuliffe as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Now, however, even some of Clinton's most faithful supporters have questioned his conduct under the weight of damaging reports on Clinton's pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich and others.
''The pardon stories, you know, they get us off of our message,'' McAuliffe said. ''You know, if I were president, I wouldn't have pardoned Marc Rich. But we need to move on.''
Even political consultant James Carville, long one of Clinton's most ardent supporters, suggested Clinton should have been ''more suspecting'' of the motives of some of those arguing for clemency.
Democrats in Congress are hopeful that, even though pardon inquiries continue, they have at least begun to shift attention from Clinton to budget issues. ''I think we're making progress,'' Daschle said.
But their biggest problem is not Clinton's continuing woes but learning how to regroup after holding the presidency for eight years, said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.
''There is a natural withdrawal that comes when you lose the White House. You take it for granted when you've got it. Then suddenly you realize that the other side is able to frame the agenda,'' he said.
Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.
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