WASHINGTON -- The 2004 Democratic presidential field looks like it will emerge from more than a half-dozen potential candidates who have an advantage because of their early campaigning or position in the party.
The group is likely to firm up by next year -- adding one or two and possibly losing some -- depending on the outcome of November's midterm elections and whether Al Gore decides to run again, Democrats say.
Potential candidates like Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina insist their decisions will not be based on either Gore's plans or the relative political strength of President Bush. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Gore's running mate in 2000, has pledged not to seek the presidency if Gore does.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri are also talked about as possible candidates. But any decision about running is likely to be affected by the outcome of the congressional elections.
Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has been more forthright than most in stating that he is very likely to run. Civil rights activist Al Sharpton of New York has also said he might run.
The group could grow if Democrats do well in November, says Democratic strategist Paul Begala.
''Bush is popular, but not feared among the Democrats,'' Begala said. ''They understand that Bush's popularity rating is in truth Osama bin Laden's unpopularity rating.''
Many veteran Democrats expect to see a governor in the group -- possibly Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, California Gov. Gray Davis or Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes. All are up for re-election in November.
Several other senators -- Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Joe Biden of Delaware and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin -- have expressed interest, but have not been as active on the Democratic event circuit.
Gore, the former vice president, takes another big step toward deciding whether to run again when he meets with 60 of his top national donors at a June 28-30 retreat in Memphis, Tenn.
While they don't expect Gore to announce whether he will run for president again, they will be mulling the question.
''I don't think the topic will be far from anyone's mind,'' Democratic fund raiser Mitchell Berger of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said.
Several senators have been busy visiting early primary states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and events around the country.
Lieberman has been a popular draw on the Democratic speaking circuit in the early states, and elsewhere in the country. Edwards and Kerry have actively worked Democratic crowds as they prepare for a possible run.
Edwards this weekend was making his second trip to New Hampshire since the last election, and has visited Iowa four times and South Carolina twice. He has attended more than a dozen top state fund-raising dinners in the last year and is holding his own retreat of 50 to 100 friends and supporters on St. Simons Island, Ga., at the end of the month.
Kerry has been to New Hampshire seven times and is about to go to Iowa in a week for the second time. He spoke at a top Democratic event in South Carolina earlier this year, along with events in California, Florida and Wisconsin. In February, Kerry held a ski weekend in Idaho for top donors.
That early work is crucial in building the political network needed for a national run, veteran Democratic activists say.
''Unless you're extraordinarily well known, there's a long run-up to a presidential election,'' said Chicago Democratic strategist David Axelrod. ''The guys positioned to do it are already on the field. To come in late you have to either have a tremendous base or fund-raising capacity or great wealth.''
One veteran party strategist, Al From, of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, says the Democratic field may take another full year to define itself.
''Right now, it's early exploration,'' From said. ''Starting at the beginning of next year, people get really serious. You have to find out how you play when people are paying attention.''
EDITOR'S NOTE -- Will Lester covers politics and polling for The Associated Press.
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