WASHINGTON Nine and counting.
The Democratic field for the presidential nomination is already crowded, and now Joe Biden and Wesley Clark are hinting they may become candidates Nos. 10 and 11, a prospect that leaves Republicans practically giddy with anticipation and a few Democrats wondering whether it's time to draw the line.
Democrats are loath to say no to any White House aspirant, but this political traffic jam is producing a cacophony of voices that has few Americans tuning in. Democrats acknowledge it's not necessarily in the best interest of the party, particularly in the fall, just a few months from the first election tests.
''It adds two more voices to a big group of voices already trying to separate themselves from the others,'' said South Carolina Democratic Chairman Joe Erwin. ''For some of them to stand out is hard; this would make their job harder.''
Said Arizona Democratic Chairman Jim Pederson: ''The problem is that our message is getting diluted.''
Some Democrats have started talking about requiring the candidates to meet a threshold of support reflected in public opinion polls to participate in debates and forums. It's a move unlikely to get past the discussion stage as it would likely alienate many in the party's base.
Minnesota Democratic Chairman Mike Erlandson raised another concern numerous Democrats scrambling for limited campaign dollars.
''We have a president who has proven to be the best fund-raising president our nation has ever seen. ... If we still have all nine candidates going into January and February, that means the resources will be spread thinner than I would like to see.''
In the meantime, Republicans are gleefully rubbing their hands.
''It's an intramural battle on the Democratic side,'' White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card told The Associated Press during a visit to New Hampshire earlier this week. ''They'll be playing A-ball, hoping to get up to Double A, then maybe getting up to Triple A before they get to the majors. I think we've got to let that process mature.''
Republican consultant Scott Reed said: ''Candidate forums will turn into reruns of 'Hee Haw.' They will become out-of-control events that diminish all of the candidates and lower everybody's expectations.''
While Clark's resume is unique NATO commander during the Kosovo war, Rhodes scholar he lacks the organization and finances, especially if he started in September, to mount a credible campaign. He is perceived as a possible vice presidential nominee.
Biden, however, would bring many of the same attributes already well-represented in the primary race.
Senator. There are four already John Kerry of Massachusetts, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Bob Graham of Florida and John Edwards of North Carolina.
Foreign policy expert. Kerry is a longtime member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Graham is the former chairman of the Senate Intelligence panel. Lieberman, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, had been talking tough on Iraq and ousting Saddam Hussein before George W. Bush took the oath of office.
Judiciary Committee. Edwards is a former trial lawyer and also serves on the panel.
And when Biden announces his candidacy, the Republicans likely will offer a press release pointing out that weeks after the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal hit The New York Times, the Democrats have a candidate who was forced to abandon his 1988 presidential bid after using parts of a speech by British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock.
Biden, according to his most recent Senate financial disclosure form, does not have the personal wealth to launch a campaign, and a possible entry in September would leave him millions of dollars behind his rivals.
Clark also faces a similar financial challenge.
''You go past August, and it's not doable,'' said Oklahoma Democratic Chairman Jay Parmley.
Said former Republican Chairman Rich Bond: ''They're terrific guys, but time and money are their enemies.''
There's only one Democrat who could raise the money and secure the party support in a New York minute Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and she says she's not running in 2004.
At least one Democrat, however, sees an advantage in the crowded field. The nominee who eventually emerges will have been tested.
''The person that can cut through that is probably well suited to take on George Bush,'' said Parmley, noting that Bush is ''a pretty big voice himself.''
Will Lester covers politics and polling for The Associated Press. Associated Press writer Holly Ramer in Concord, N.H., contributed to this report.
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