A day before the International Committee of the Red Cross announced it would reduce its presence in Iraq because the country was becoming increasingly dangerous, President Bush said he would run for re-election in 2004 on the theme that “the world is more peaceful and more free under my leadership.” While the irony may have been lost on Bush, it was not missed by the nine Democratic presidential candidates, every one of whom would be more than happy to debate the President’s claim as the party’s nominee. It is a measure of their belief that Bush, who seemed so invincible in March of 2003, will be vulnerable in November of 2004 that they are now attacking one another almost as frequently as they condemn the President’s international and domestic policies. The exchanges got so hot in the October 26 debate that after Carol Moseley Braun was told that she and Dennis Kucinich had not been asked any questions in the first round because there were so many dust-ups between the other candidates, the former senator drew laughs by exclaiming that it wasn’t fair to neglect the two of them “just because nobody’s mad at us.”

Most of the potshots are aimed at Howard Dean, who, with one year to go before the election, has positioned himself as the candidate who most wants to get in the ring with Bush. Dean’s opposition to the war in Iraq won the once-obscure candidate the attention of Democratic activists, but it is his unrelenting assault on the President, his aides and their policies that has won him front-runner status as the start of the caucus and primary season approaches. But Dean’s still got a ways to go before he locks the nomination up, and his opponents are busy trying to trip him up with charges that he is either an unelectable liberal or a closet conservative. Wesley Clark and Dick Gephardt are emerging as the candidates best positioned to threaten Dean. While Clark still gets the headlines, the distinct dynamics of the 2004 race could end up making it a Gephardt-Dean race.

Unlike 1992, when Democrats went looking for a candidate with the right style to take on the first George Bush, the 2004 contest is not shaping up as what former Clinton aide Dick Morris calls an “image primary.” Rather, the fast-and-furious competition that will begin in mid-January appears set to be an “activist primary,” in which voters are looking for a candidate who mirrors their fierce disdain for Bush and their faith that only a Democratic Party that clearly distinguishes itself from the GOP will have a chance to energize the base that is needed to win. Despite his hapless start as a candidate, Clark might win an image primary. His debate performances are less than stellar, but he is getting sounder on the stump, especially when he bangs Bush’s management of the war and says Dick Cheney’s former company Halliburton should “redeploy to Houston.” He’s still running strongly in national polls, but those polls won’t decide the nomination race; it will play out state by state on battlefields for which the general’s training has not prepared him.

The handheld-to-handheld combat of the Internet age plays to Dean’s strengths, and his campaign has built a web community that extends not just to all fifty states but down to the county level in early caucus and primary states. And Dean’s fundraising juggernaut has given him the resources to stay competitive long after other candidates have emptied their treasuries. No other campaign can match Dean’s nationwide network, or his financial muscle. Already, Clark and Joe Lieberman have made the politically embarrassing decision to skip Iowa, and John Edwards–who has spent close to $1 million to little avail in the first caucus state–is struggling to stay in the game not just there but in New Hampshire. John Kerry, the early favorite of much of the party establishment, has to hold his own in Iowa and win New Hampshire, both of which are starting to look like tall orders for the tall guy.

That leaves the anything-but-flashy Gephardt as the candidate who may be best positioned to compete effectively with Dean’s high-tech campaign. If Dean is surfing the new wave, Gephardt is surfing the New Deal. In his must-win state of Iowa, where the Democratic demographic skews old, Gephardt has reclaimed the lead on the strength of a campaign that savages Dean for talk about tinkering with Social Security and Medicare. Dean screams “scare tactics,” but scare tactics work; Gephardt has regained his lead in the Iowa polls. And Gephardt is about to get a big boost from the twenty international unions that are developing a coordinated campaign to get their 54,000 Iowa members out for the former House minority leader–a consequential contribution in a state where the caucuses draw only about 100,000 voters. If they secure Iowa for Gephardt, those unions will replicate the campaign in other states.

If Gephardt wins Iowa and Dean bests Kerry and Clark in New Hampshire, both candidates know they will be in a race to expand their base. To that end, they’re competing hard to win the favor of African-American voters, who will play a decisive role in the industrial and Southern state primaries that pack the calendar between February 3 and March 2. Gephardt is betting that the unions that back him, many of which have substantial African-American memberships, will give him an edge. He is fighting rough, charging that Dean’s comment that he wanted to be “the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks” represents a break with the party’s civil rights commitment. The effect of that criticism, echoed by several other contenders, remains to be seen. Dean, who has been accused of running a white-bread campaign, trumped the other candidates in late October when Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. said he planned to endorse him. Of all Dean’s endorsements, Jackson’s could be the most important, a reality underscored by an angry Al Sharpton’s charge that “any so-called African-American leader that would endorse Dean despite his anti-black record is mortgaging the future of our struggle for civil rights and social justice.” Sharpton’s smart; he recognizes the new dynamic that comes into play when Dean combines his angry white liberal base with African-American votes. Indeed, if Jackson hits the trail hard for Dean, and if the candidate scores an endorsement from the Service Employees International Union, a 1.6-million-member organization with a huge African-American membership that appears to be leaning toward the Vermonter, Dean could be positioned to parlay the upper hand he has already secured into a winning hand.