As was evident during the most recent episode of the Democratic Party’s Star Search–a meeting in Washington of the Democratic National Committee, where most of the presidential contenders spoke–here’s what each of the party’s 2004 candidates need at this early point in the race:

Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean: More time as a second-tier candidate so he can continue to make progress under the radar.

Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut: A reason why Democrats should give a damn about his future.

Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts: The war to come and go quickly.

Representative Richard Gephardt of St. Louis: Reconsideration.

Senator John Edwards of North Carolina: An agent in Hollywood.

Former Senator Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois: A rationale for running other than becoming another first.

Representative Dennis Kucinich of Cleveland: A function button on his laptop to remove references to FDR.

Provocateur-turned-activist Al Sharpton: His own television show.

Dean, as the buzz-watchers agree, generated the most positive vibes at the gathering. He hit the podium with a sharp declaration: “What I want to know is why in the world the Democratic Party leadership is supporting the president’s unilateral attack on Iraq?” He then blasted the party’s leaders for not challenging President Bush on whether there should be any new tax cuts; for obsessing over a patients’ bill of rights rather than “standing up” for providing health care insurance for all; and for going along with Bush’s “Leave No Child Behind” education legislation, which he claimed would leave behind “every student, every teacher and every school board.” After this machine-gun opening, he paused and said, “I’m Howard Dean and I’m here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” Cue the applause? Actually, applause lights were not needed. Many in the crowd jumped up and cheered.

Using that old Paul Wellstone line, Dean–who is the first to say that as a balanced-budget fanatic he is not a “Wellstone liberal”–provoked one of the strongest reactions of the two-day candidate-tasting. He went on to extoll his record (balancing budgets in Vermont, expanding a state health program so that essentially every child up to the age of 18 receives health coverage, conserving hundreds of thousands of acres of public land, signing legislation that established legal civil unions for gay and lesbian couples) and whacked Bush and the Republicans for cynically and falsely using the word “quotas” to attack affirmative action. (“White folks in the South driving with Confederate decals on the back of pickup trucks ought to be voting with us, not them, because their kids don’t have health insurance either.”) Dean finished up by proclaiming that the task for Democrats is not merely succeeding in 2004: “Is this party about the next election, or is it about changing America?..Only by changing America will we win back the White House.” More applause. Much more.

Many Democratic activists and officials had come to the DNC meeting looking to fall in love with a candidate. And Dean’s expression of passion tugged at heartstrings. One top DNC fundraiser told me, “Maybe because he was speaking to my youth, I felt jazzed by him. Now I want to know more about Dean. And I’m about as cynical and jaded as it gets.” Dean had managed to come across as both idealistic and pragmatic in the same speech. And forceful. Prior to this meeting, he had already earned the title of sleeper-candidate-to-watch–a dubious distinction, since in the past this mantle has been bestowed upon such nonstarters as Bruce Babbitt and Paul Tsongas. Dean, until the recent entries of Kucinich and Moseley Braun, had the antiwar position largely to himself. (Lieberman, Edwards, Gephardt–for; Kerry–critical of Bush’s approach, supportive of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s last UN presentation, and willing to vote to grant Bush the authority to launch war on his own.) But Dean’s speech showed he might be able to woo Democrats with a pitch wider than just antiwar. “What happens after the war?” I asked a Dean adviser. “What will his campaign be based on then?” He smiled and said, “People are still going to need health insurance.” And while most of the candidates make sure to talk up their yearning for universal coverage, Dean, a former doctor (and before that a stockbroker), has a convincing manner when he discusses his plan to expand Medicaid and Medicare and provide business and individuals health insurance subsidies to achieve bare-bones universal coverage. Sure, he has a touch of Dukakis in him (un-Lincolnesque), but he’s tougher. Dean is no great liberal hope (he has an A rating from the NRA, and he wouldn’t sign the Kyoto Treaty without changing it). But he speechifies like a great liberal hope. And in the party, there are folks looking for such a candidate.

With his speech at the DNC meeting, Lieberman showed he has little to offer to Democratic voters. Memories of 2000? Well, that’s not enough. And they are bittersweet. He kept going on about The Dream: The Dream this, The Dream that. Of course, he meant the American Dream of which he–the Jewish son of a baker who rose to become nearly the vice president–is one embodiment. “To restore that Dream is my dream and my purpose in this campaign,” he told the crowd. It was not rip-roaring stuff. And his defense of his pro-war stance was not in synch with what seemed to be the assembled’s skepticism toward war and its fundamental distrust of Bush. Lieberman made sure to point out his more progressive side: bashing Bush for pulling out of Kyoto, attacking the Bush tax cuts. But the other Dems offer the same–without being outright hawks, and without being cultural conservatives (a side of himself that Lieberman kept in check in front of these hardcore Democrats). And the new ideas Lieberman offered–a payroll tax credit to encourage companies to create jobs, a zero capital gains rate for long-term investments in entrepreneurial firms, a National Homeland Security Academy, and a Frontline Initiative that would provide funding, training and information to firefighters and police–didn’t cause anyone in the audience to separate his or her derriere from his or her chair.

Worse for Lieberman, in the hallways, the chatterers all seemed agreed on a crucial point: Lieberman has no obvious breakout state. It appears he will be barely campaigning in Iowa, where dovish Democrats are strong among the voting pool. New Hampshire, even though it allows independents to vote in party primaries, will be tough; Kerry and Dean hail from neighboring states. Florida? If home-state Senator Bob Graham joins the fray, as is expected, that could freeze out Lieberman. South Carolina? If Lieberman is going to be embraced by any Democrats, it probably would be Southern ones. But Edwards was born in South Carolina and now represents the state’s northern neighbor. Of all the better-known candidates, Lieberman faces the most severe strategic obstacles–and his speech to the DNC crowd didn’t reveal too many clues as to how he believes he can surmount them.

Kerry was a no-show, due to his recent prostate cancer surgery. But it was clear that Dean intends to keep pressing Kerry on the war. In interviews, Dean scoffs at Democrats who criticize Bush’s handling of Iraq but who voted for the Iraq resolution. He won’t name names, but there’s only one fellow who fits that description. Kerry has been quasi-straddling for months. Once the war comes–and that does seem likely–he will have to say yea or nay. (Not that Congress will vote on the question; it has already punted. But in our republic Kerry still has to answer to Tim Russert.) As the prewar season continues, Dean has more opportunity to entice antiwar Dems and argue that Kerry is being politically cautious. With Dean clearly on one side, and Lieberman, Edwards and Gephardt clearly on the other, the longer the war remains an issue in the race (it could fade quickly as an issue depending on what happens in Iraq), the longer Kerry will be placed on the spot. Many DNCers are looking at Kerry as the wannabe most likely to become a frontrunner. And–no small matter–he seems to have the lead in money and organization. But as that senior DNC fundraiser said, “this time around money and organization may not be enough, message may tumble money.” Dean is positioning himself as a message candidate, and he is gunning for Kerry.

As the fellow who led the Democrats in the House to four consecutive losses, Gephardt might warrant an automatic disqualification. When he announced he was running once more for president–he took a stab in 1988–doubters said he would have trouble escaping the view that he’s yesterday’s news. He responded by noting that sometimes a person just wants to slip into an old pair of sneakers. But at the DNC meeting he did not present himself as the comfort candidate. And his address demonstrated why a Gephardt bid is not a completely delusional exercise. He, too, had to defend his embrace of Bush’s war in Iraq. But he, no fool, didn’t dwell on this matter. His remarks centered on showing how Dick Gephardt–son of a milkman, son of a “labor household”–and his family have needed outside assistance to succeed in life. Government loans got him through college and law school. Health insurance paid for the experimental therapies that saved his two-year-old son from cancer. His mother worked at four jobs but not long enough at any to qualify for a pension. (Gephardt pays her bills now.) His daughter followed her dream of becoming a teacher. (Now, because the pay is so lousy, she lives with her parents.) So Gephardt proposes a law requiring every employer to provide health insurance (with the help of tax credits), establishing a pension plan that follows workers, and a Teacher Corps that will pay for the college education of people who commit to teach for five years. There’s more: he calls for an international minimum wage, a living wage in he United States, and “an Apollo Project to develop environmentally smart, renewable energy solutions.”

Gephardt took The Dream shtick and married it to specific–and, yes, somewhat bold–policy proposals. And he did it an effective style, revealing his personal history, proving his smarts. (Gephardt has a long history of being an inconsistent speaker. He can wow labor crowds; he can also induce ZZZZs.) Several DNCers I spoke to said they were pleasantly surprised by Gephardt’s presentation and believed it might resonate with voters–particularly in Iowa. (The no-shit conventional wisdom: if Gephardt doesn’t clean up in Iowa, he can pack up his sneakers and call it a day.) If voters and the party pros and activists judge Gephardt on his ideas and intentions–and are not put off by his record as minority leader, the haven’t-we-seen-this-before feel of his candidacy, and his partnership with Bush on the war (all decent-sized ifs)–he might not be as discardable as an old Nike.

Edwards spoke as if he had already wrapped up the nomination. He dared Bush to come after him for having been a trial attorney. “Mr. President, if you want to talk about the insiders you’ve fought for versus the kids and families I’ve fought for, this is the message I have for you: Mr. President, bring it on.” A standing ovation followed, and Edwards went on to recount the time he had defended a little boy named Ethan Bedrick who had cerebral palsy and needed daily physical therapy in order to have freedom of movement later in life. An insurance company bureaucrat–who had never seen this boy–had said no to the treatment. “I will stand with Ethan Bedrick–and so will every person in this room,” Edwards declared. (Edwards never told the crowd what happened in the case; presumably, he won. And when one reporter asked an Edwards press person how much Edwards had made while working for the boy, the Edwards aide said she did not know and would not even bother to find out.)

Edwards is the smoothest of the bunch. He does the populist routine. Noting his dad was a mill worker, he vows “to be a champion for the regular people.” That is, folks who have lost retirement security, seniors who cannot afford prescription drugs, kids suffering from asthma due to air pollution. He called for putting off Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy and proposed a $500 tax credit to help every American family meet its energy needs. He made damn sure to come across as a fighter, but also–to show he’s not a fuzzy-headed liberal–as a politician who wants to impose “fiscal discipline, which, let’s be honest, is a challenge for both parties.” He quickly referred to his support for war against Saddam Hussein. (“He has chemical and biological weapons now, and has used them in the past.”) But in a savvy move, he noted “the real test for America will come after Saddam is gone.” In other words, he laid down a marker, ahead of the other candidates, for the coming debate on postwar Iraq–which could come to shape the primary election, if not the general election, more than the war itself.

Edwards has a central-casting air. He looks not so much like a president as like a casting director’s idea of a president. His moves are as mannered and (seemingly) as rehearsed as those of, well, a trial lawyer. (He’s only been a senator four years.) The crowd response was encouraging for the Edwards backers. My out-on-a-limb hunch is that people will fall for him or they will not. They either will be entranced by the act (and not all acts are insincere), or they will feel put off by someone who appears to have one. There is an Edwards spell. But will it get thin as he spreads it further?

Moseley Braun came off flat. She read a well-written speech in which she explained she wants to be president “because now is the time for inclusion, and equality, and real democracy.” The first African-American woman elected to the Senate, she now pitches herself as being ready to become another pioneer. “My campaign began,” she said, “when citizens from across this country challenged me to bring my experience in the laws and in local, state, national and international government to bear on substantive issues facing our country, and to help develop the voice of the Democratic Party in a national dialogue about future directions.” (I missed that popular uprising.) Many DNCers believe her campaign began when DNC strategist/operative Donna Brazile egged her on, mainly to dilute the African-American vote that Sharpton might attract. Moseley Braun’s stint in the Senate was marked by several ugly ethics problems, including one episode in which she cozied up to a Nigerian dictator. Her speech–full of all the right progressive touchstones but delivered in less-than-inspiring fashion–did little to convince a listener that she was indeed responding to a call from the citizenry or that she deserves another opportunity to handle the public’s trust.

Kucinich mentioned FDR at least four times in his speech–which may be four times too many. Not to slight the Great One, but Roosevelt references are not very forward-oriented. As someone preaching the old-time gospel of progressivism, Kucinich might increase his effectiveness by avoiding throwback metaphors. One of the lesser-known speakers, he started out with self-deprecating humor: “Two days before I filed at the FEC, I had 2 percent in the polls. Since no one knows who I am, I can only go up. And money? With me, money is no object, because it has never been the subject.” He then quickly moved into a severe critique of the war–outpacing Dean in intensity and stridency. (“The administration battle plan calls for a two-day missile attack on Iraq; a total of 800 missiles are to be aimed at Baghdad, a city of five million. An invasion will follow, with house-to-house fighting. This will put America’s moral standing in the world at risk.”) This was red meat for committed progressives, for the most antiwar of Democrats. But the audience, which appeared mostly antiwar, did not react warmly.

Though the war was his motivation number one, Kucinich criticized Bush’s tax cuts for the rich and decried the state of the economy. He urged creating a “single-payer system” of universal health insurance and dumping Nafta. In true progressive fashion, he referred to a good education, decent housing, clean water, and food fit to eat as rights. “We have,” he declared, “stepped into the world of George Orwell where peace is war, where security is control, where bombing innocent people is liberation….Someone must step forward. Someone must say stop. Someone must say America must take a new direction….We have a right to a job….We have a right to be free of the fear. We have a right to be free of war. We have a right to be human.” Kucinich didn’t fully connect with this (mostly) well-dressed crowd. One question for him is whether more ideologically-driven Democratic voters or just plain folks (say, union voters) will respond favorably to his unadulterated and stark message.

As for Sharpton, the Democrats should get one of their multimillionaire backers (who can no longer cut a seven-figure soft-money check to the national party) to finance a television show for him. He is obviously looking for a platform, and a presidential campaign is awfully convenient. He even deserves a venue of his own. But must it be a public office? Sharpton is funnier than Chris Rock. On Reaganomics: “we never got the trickle; we got the down.” On US intelligence: “I don’t understand why our intelligence can tape conversations in Baghdad but can’t find a man hiding in a cave in Afghanistan. A man who comes out every two months with a new video.” On the Bush move to appoint “diverse” federal judges: “During the abolition movement, we didn’t fight to have more diversified slave masters, we fought to get free.” On Bush and affirmative action: “He’s the ultimate recipient of a set-aside program. The Supreme Court set aside a whole election.” On himself: “Everybody in politics has baggage, some folks have enough money…to get others to carry their bags.”

This is good stuff. And the crowd laughed heartily. (HBO? After Bill Maher?) When it comes to rhetoric, Sharpton also can do poignant and touching. “How is it an honor for…men and women to risk their lives in Iraq,” he wondered, “when it’s a burden for the rich to pay their share of taxes.” He called for a $250 billion program to rebuild the infrastructure, outlawing the death penalty, and enhancing workers’ rights to organize. Sharpton, with his charlatan’s past, is a showman. The DNCers enjoyed the show, but they are fretting about him. He’s a nightmare. What happens in South Carolina? Could he win enough African-American votes to prevail in a crowded field? Would the media then portray him as one of the leading Democrats? How would that help the party in the general election? It’s possible that in a race with a large and divided field, no candidate will end up with a majority of the delegates. So might Sharpton–if he collects any delegates along the way–be a powerbroker at the convention?

The party wants him to go away, but it’s afraid to push him. After his speech, I and a few reporters asked Donald Fowler, a former party chairman who hails from South Carolina, to compare Sharpton to Jesse Jackson. “There are big differences between them,” he said. Such as? He refused to say. “You really don’t think I’m a fool?” he explained. As we were pressing him to provide examples, Brazile sauntered past, heard what was going on, and said to Fowler, “You better not answer that question.”

Sharpton took on the “nightmare” charge directly. He told a story about falling asleep on an airplane. He was far gone when a flight attendant nudged him to see if he wanted to eat. At first, he thought he was having a nightmare, then he realized that was not the case. “It made me think,” he told the Democrats. “Sometimes when you’re asleep what you think is a nightmare may be a wake-up call.” The crowd tittered but did not cheer this line.

The dynamics of the Democratic contest are likely to change in the weeks ahead, especially if other candidates parachute in. Besides Bob Graham, former Senator Gary Hart, former NATO commando Wesley Clark, Senator Christopher Dodd and Senator Joseph Biden are still mulling. Imagine a debate or future beauty contest with thirteen candidates. It’s enough to make a Democrat’s head spin. What will cause Democrats to swoon, though, is not apparent. What the candidates need is far more obvious than what Democratic voters want.