Racing Into 2004 | The Nation


Racing Into 2004

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Al Sharpton is a more complex case; he's passionately antiwar and solidly progressive on most issues, and, in a field that tends toward wonkishness, Sharpton is quick on his feet and fun on the stump. But because of a well-documented history of legal troubles that would become major media fodder if his campaign ever gained ground, no one thinks he is going to be nominated. That hasn't halted efforts to prevent a "Sharpton surprise" in South Carolina, where Gore's exit means that there is no white candidate with established appeal to African-American voters. "This thing about Carol Moseley-Braun maybe entering the race is nothing more than a 'let's head off Al Sharpton' move by people at the top in the Democratic Party who want to make sure that if Al start's polling well they can move some money in and pump up another black candidate," says a Democratic consultant who has run a number of campaigns in states with large African-American voting blocs.

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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Polling data and interviews with several dozen activists in early primary and caucus states suggest that of the announced candidates, Kerry and Dean are drawing the most attention from progressives. Kerry is the clear front-runner in New Hampshire, in part because he comes from neighboring Massachusetts but also because he has spent freely and well on organization. He is also running hard in South Carolina and Iowa. "There is a lot of feeling about how Democrats need a candidate who looks presidential, and Kerry looks presidential. He looks like a winner. He's also a Vietnam veteran, which gives him a lot of credibility when he criticizes Bush on foreign affairs," says Cohen. Despite the fact that he voted for the Senate resolution authorizing Bush to launch a war against Iraq, Kerry has been honing a critique of the Bush Administration that is increasingly aggressive. He has also gotten points for being the first member of the Senate to call for Trent Lott to step down as majority leader.

But the candidate who seems to be getting the highest marks for distinguishing himself as someone who is ready to battle Bush on Iraq, tax cuts for the rich and healthcare is Dean. "Howard Dean's the one who really is starting to define himself, and that's something a lot of Democrats are looking for--there is such a feeling that Democrats did badly last year because they failed to define themselves," says New Hampshire's Arnesen. The buzz increased after the Linn County Democratic Party dinner in late January, where Kerry, Gephardt and Dean unofficially kicked off the Iowa caucus campaign. "The first standing ovation of the night was when Dean got up and said he was against the war. Everybody was on their feet," says David Osterberg, a former state legislator and 1998 Democratic Senate nominee. "This is Iowa, and Iowa has a long tradition of supporting peace candidates. Dean's tapping into that."

Still, Osterberg is far short of signing up for Dean. Like a lot of Iowa progressives, he says he is waiting for Kucinich to make a decision. Kucinich has been getting pressure to run since he delivered an impassioned antiwar address to the Southern California chapter of Americans for Democratic Action almost a year ago. "Kucinich is closer to my politics," he says. "And it's not just the war. My sense is that he's the best of the bunch on labor issues." That explains why the Iowa AFL-CIO has invited Kucinich--along with the declared candidates--to address its annual legislative conference in mid-February. Labor isn't making any endorsements at this point. But if Kucinich makes a President's Day announcement before the union crowd in Des Moines, the AFL-CIO's Mark Smith thinks he could reshape the race. "I'm just foolish enough to think that somebody with a message might even win this thing," says Smith. "Kucinich has a message. He gave a speech on January 5 where he talked about how we've got money to bomb bridges over the Euphrates River in Iraq but not to build bridges over the Cuyahoga River. That's kitchen-table language he's using. People can wrap their heads around that. I'm not saying that it's Kucinich who will do it necessarily. But it's somebody, and if somebody delivers that message in this race there are a lot of people--not just in Iowa but around the country--who'll get excited."

Not all the excitement would be favorable, however, if it's Kucinich. His record of casting antiabortion votes in Congress has drawn sharp criticism from abortion-rights supporters, who are well organized in early caucus and primary states. Though Kucinich has sought to ease tensions around the abortion issue in recent months by suggesting that as President he would not seek to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision, New Hampshire's Arnesen says, "His record on abortion is bad news with a lot of women."

Arnesen says she keeps hearing people in New Hampshire bring up Wesley Clark, the former NATO commander in Europe, who has been toying with a candidacy. "You can't label him a peacenik, because he's a retired general," she says. "But he's this very effective critic of Bush's policies." When she's finished talking about Clark, Arnesen starts in on Gary Hart, then stops herself. "I definitely wouldn't mind a few more choices, because I'm not hearing any of these announced candidates say what needs to be said yet," she says. "But, you know, this thing is so tight. And the decisions Democrats in New Hampshire and Iowa are being asked to make are so important to the future of the country and the world that I know we can't drag this thing out too much. If we don't get serious pretty quick, the race is going to be finished and we're all going to be standing around asking, 'What happened? How did we end up with this loser as the nominee?'"

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