Like birds on a wire, Democratic presidential wannabes are flapping their wings and leaving the perch at the same time. Or are they more akin to lemmings? North Carolina Senator John Edwards threw his fine head of hair into the ring last week by declaring the establishment of an exploratory campaign. As soon as he did, outgoing House minority leader Richard Gephardt–the Speaker who never was–announced his exploratory committee would pitch camp. That prompted aides and pals of Senator Tom Daschle, who lost his title as Senate Majority Leader this past election, to inform reporters their man was about to do the same. [UPDATE: On January 7, the Daschle crew spread the word that Daschle during the final countdown had decided to abort the misssion.] And one-time charlatan and current-day community activist Al Sharpton said on January 3 that, he, too, had an exploratory committee under construction.
This quartet joins Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and just-leaving Governor Howard Dean of Vermont, who each have opened their own exploratory campaign. (Funny thing about these exploratory committees–they almost always find what they set out to look for: a reason why their sponsor should formally declare himself a candidate for president.) Waiting in the wings–but probably not for long–is Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman. Others Democrats who have been asked–or have asked to be asked–about their presidential desires include Delaware Senator Joe Biden, Florida Senator Bob Graham, Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd, former NATO commander and Iraq war skeptic Wesley Clark, Representative Dennis Kucinich, who heads the Progressive Caucus in the House, and one-time scandalized presidential candidate Gary Hart, who has enjoyed a post-9/11 resurgence as a terrorism egghead.
As soon as Al Gore yanked himself out of the race, the others lunged. They had strong motivation to move fast. The Democrats, thank to party chairman Terry McAuliffe, have frontloaded their primaries next year. There won’t be much time for any one candidate to build momentum by winning here and there over the course of a couple months. The eventual nominee will likely be whoever is left standing after the initial round. Which means the early prepping is more crucial than ever. Gore’s will-he-or-won’t-he bit kept the race frozen. But the other contenders were eager to enlist consultants and fundraisers. The first pre-primary season involves competition for the party professionals, who themselves are usually anxious to sign up with a candidate early. (They then can start billing right away and, probably just as important, can maximize their influence with their new boss.) Next comes another pre-primary season–the money-chase, during which candidates are expected to prove their legitimacy by raising millions of dollars from friends and strangers. (Sharpton may get a bye in this round.)
Look at the stories that accompanied Edward’s entry into the race (which was purposefully scheduled for the slow news week of New Year’s). Most contained the obligatory paragraph (or more) about questions surrounding his fundraising ability. He has only campaigned once before–in 1998 for the Senate–and used millions of dollars from the personal fortune he amassed as a trial lawyer to pay for that expensive bid. Mr. Fresh Face may end up wowing the Democratic deep-pockets, but old-dogs Gephardt, Kerry, Daschle, and Lieberman each have extensive fund-grubbing experience, a natural base of contributors (Lieberman, for example, can call on the insurance industry of his home state, Jewish-Americans, and the corporate sponsors of the Democratic Leadership Council, which he once chaired), and a long list of potential donors. Edwards and Dean may have trouble keeping up in the ka-ching department, but, unlike the Republican primary contest of 2000 (in which major contenders dropped out, citing financing problems in the face of George W. Bush’s mega-money machine), the Democratic nomination battle probably will offer voters several candidates who are, as the pros like to say, “competitive.”