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.”

So with the hares out on the track, it’s time for an early run-down of the already-announced or soon-to-be–in no special order.

Lieberman. Would he join the current race had Gore in 2000 not selected him, over Kerry and Edwards, as his soon-to-be recount-mate? Lieberman clearly relished the attention, and he appears to want more. He has always been able to draw the television cameras, often with his self-righteous, finger-wagging brand of guilt-tripping cultural conservatism. But he knows that in a presidential cycle, it’s the Dems who run who will get the Larry King invitations. The big question: what does Lieberman offer Democratic primary voters? Are they pining for a politician who scolds Hollywood? Or a pro-business DLCer who helped block the establishment of stricter accounting rules for corporations? Lieberman has a decent environmental record, and in the past he has shown faint stirrings of consumer protectionism. He pushed for the independent 9/11 commission and a new Homeland Security Department. But he is best known for his center-right positioning within the party. In a crowded field, that might permit him to build a niche, but it is not the sort of politics that typically excites Democrats in the primaries. Will he have a claim on Gore-Lieberman loyalists? Doubtful. Voters have short memories. Moreover, in 2000, he was a sidecar. Gore turned to Lieberman, who had chastised Bill Clinton, to obtain non-Monica balance. Sidecars do not accelerate on their own.

Obvious point: He is Jewish, and Jews make up 2.2 percent of the population. Voters tend to vote for pols who they sense are like them. Can Lieberman’s Jewish piety be a substitute for default-position Christianity?

Less-than-obvious point: If there is–God forbid (as Lieberman would say more than once)–a cataclysmic event and Bush has failed to prevent it or has responded poorly, might Democratic voters (and independents in states where they can vote in a party’s primary) hunger for a preachy leader who can speak to the other side?

Edwards. He says he wants to be president to help “regular people.” He really cares about “regular people.” And, by the way, do you know he has policy proposals that will benefit “regular people.” As a Washington p.r. specialist said to me recently, “I don’t know if that is a good choice of words. Most people like to think of themselves as ‘special,’ not ‘regular.'” Edwards, the son of a mill worker, is casting himself as a Southern populist, and he’s blasting the latest Bush tax cuts, while calling on his fellow Dems to spend less. He is the only drawler in the contest, but the millionaire-lawyer rates low on the “Bubba” scale. Does he start with a regional base? Maybe. (Quick, Edwards, name five NASCAR drivers.) But political handicappers say he’s not that popular in his home state–and he is up for reelection next year. Should he stay (in NC) or should he go (national)? Edwards can be impressive at a committee hearing. Over a year ago, at a judiciary committee session, he sliced and diced Attorney General John Ashcroft on the subject of military tribunals. It was as entertaining as watching a television court drama or the big trial scene of a Grisham movie. But when he appeared before a group of progressive activists and policy-shapers last spring, he was flat. Edwards kept asserting his concern for RPs, but displayed little depth. Yet in a more intimate meeting with possible left-leaning donors he dazzled.

Obvious point: A measly four years in public office. Before that he only voted in seven out of thirteen elections. And he doesn’t remember who he fancied in the 1992 Democratic primary contest. These are not the times for on-the-job training at the White House. Gray hair trumps good hair.

Less-than-obvious point: Edwards is a fast learner. He–or his staff–are able to jump into issues, such as homeland security, privacy, or intelligence-gathering, and offer substantial (if not always correct) ideas.

Kerry. If Democratic voters crave gravitas and seriousness, John Kerry can supply it in buckets. The rap on this Vietnam war hero who became a leading and eloquent war opponent is that he is too somber, too patrician (a result of establishment Yankee breeding), that he lacks the “touch” of successful street-level pols. More charisma than charm. He’s been working on that, telling reporters about his motorcycle jaunts. Policy-wise, he’s taken a lead among Democrats in opposing Bush’s tax cuts and questioning (not too harshly) Bush’s conduct of the war on terrorism. But he did vote to grant Bush the power to go to war against Saddam Hussein when Bush sees fit. The enviros consider Kerry a stalwart ally; he promised to filibuster legislation that would open the Alaskan wilderness to oil drilling. He has supported public financing for elections. Kerry does have a tendency to look for ways to distinguish himself ideologically from his state’s senior senator, Ted Kennedy, the liberal’s liberal. Ten years ago, he raised what he would call “hard questions” about affirmative action. That infuriated civil rights advocates, even though Kerry declared he did not intend to retreat on his support for affirmative action. He has been an ardent free-trader and voted for welfare-reform. After the state teacher’s union rallied members for Kerry during his tough 1996 reelection contest, he came out against teacher tenure and attacked the union’s contracts.

Of the Democratic contestants, Kerry is one of the few–if not the only one–to have demonstrated political courage. In the 1980s, as chairman of a foreign affairs subcommittee, he investigated the contra-drug connection (and what the CIA knew of it), the BCCI scandal (which involved a crooked, politically wired bank), and Manuel Noriega, the drugged-up, CIA-linked Panamanian dictator. For all this, Kerry took a lot of crap–from the Republican White House, the CIA, and his fellow Democrats. He hung tough.

Obvious point: A liberal (whether he says so or not) from Massachusetts. End of story.

Less-than-obvious point: Kerry has, at times, been a dispassionate advocate driven by deep concerns. Can he stay in touch with his inner-crusader?

Gephardt. One mo’ time. There is no one in the pack who appears to have more desire to be president. Of the first wave, he is the only guy who has previously sought the White House. In the 1988 race, he won the Iowa caucuses, was then savagely attacked by his Democratic foes for having flip-flopped on issues, came in second in New Hampshire, and ran out of money and gas. His twenty-six-year-long career has been marked by a conflict between two Gephardts. There’s been the Gephardt who sought to add corporate funding to the financial base of the party and who leaned toward New Democratism (as a founder of the DLC), and there’s been the Gephardt who champions labor unions and working-families-first economics and challenges the imperatives of corporate-friendly free trade. The elections of 1994, in which Newt Gingrich and the Republicans gained control of the House, appears, in retrospect, to have pushed him solidly to the non-NewDem side. But 9/11 was rough for this politician. He surgically attached himself to the President on national security matters, believing he still could assail Bush for poorly serving the public on the domestic front. It didn’t wash. You cannot praise a commander-in-chief for doing a wonderful job protecting Americans and then turn around and say, “By the way, this SOB is an untrustworthy corporate-kowtower who wants to screw working Americans in order to help out his pals at the country club.” Maybe there was no winning message that could have been crafted for the Democrats in the post-9/11 environment. Still, something would have been better than nothing. Before the elections, one poll showed that few voters had any idea what the Dems would do if they controlled Congress (while these people believed they did have a fix on GOP intentions). That was Gephardt’s bad. And in the course of messing up, he undermined the efforts of House Democrats who tried to block the legislation authorizing Bush to declare war on Iraq. These Democrats comprised a majority of his caucus.

Obvious point: Lots of friends in labor, but in four straight elections, he failed to win back the House. Why should the Democrats give this guy the keys to the car? Can AFL-CIO president John Sweeney break the news to him?

Less-than-obvious point: Of all the possible candidates, Gephardt will be less able to criticize Bush should the president not have a good war in Iraq. But if the economy derails, Gephardt has more experience than the others in talking (and thinking) about the fine details of economic policy.

Daschle. [He’s out of it. But for those readers already nostalgic for the near-campaign of Tom Daschle, here is what I had to say about his prospective bid before he bailed.] Loses the Senate, looks for a promotion. Daschle did not embrace Commander Bush as passionately as Gephardt did, but he deserves a portion of the blame for his party’s inability to promote an effective message in the last elections. To be fair, as Senate majority leader, Daschle had to corral an ideologically incoherent collection of full or partial egomaniacs, while defending a one-vote majority. How could anyone get Zell Miller and Barbara Boxer to pull together? Perhaps that was beyond the powers of a mere mortal. Daschle, certainly, was unable to keep the Senate Democrats united against Bush’s massive, feed-the-rich tax cuts, and that put them in a box from the outset. On occasion, he has been a tough political player–he did orchestrate the Jeffords jump–but always comporting himself with a Midwestern niceness. In the recent Senate contest in South Dakota–a proxy battle between Daschle and Bush–Daschle barely managed a win in his own backyard, as the Democratic incumbent, Tim Johnson, squeaked past the White House’s handpicked candidate, John Thune, by only 524 votes. At a Washington, DC, memorial service for Paul Wellstone in November, Daschle delivered a moving eulogy in which he praised his deceased colleague for having been “the soul of the Senate.” A loaded question for Daschle: why did the Senate, on your watch, need a soul? Freed of the burden of leading the unleadable, will Daschle reveal his own soul? What does it look like? In a smaller field, in an election cycle when the Democrats had poor prospects, Daschle would make an adequate–mostly liberal–standard-bearer/sacrificial lamb–much better than Bob Dole made for his party. On his own, though, what does Daschle offer–beyond a pleasant manner? What does he stand for and how does that separate him from the gaggle? That such a question needs to be asked is not an asset for him.

Obvious point. See Gephardt.

Less-than-obvious point: If Daschle is not the Democrats’ leader in the Senate, why pay attention to him? His colleagues may not cotton to Daschle campaigning for president while his top priority (as their leader) is supposed to be getting them reelected. Senate Democrats already realize they will face a particularly difficult time in 2004. They want a leader who is attentive to their needs, not his own.

Dean. For all those millions of Democratic voters who still miss Bruce Babbitt–okay, dozens–Dean starts out as their man. Socially liberal, fiscally conservative, he is a stockbroker-turned-doctor-turned-politician. A Jimmy Carter of the North? He hopes so. He has been skeptical of what seems to be the coming war in Iraq. His signature issue is healthcare. In the Green Mountain State, he tried to pass comprehensive insurance coverage and flopped. He then succeeded with a plan that, in essence, made certain that all children in the state were covered. For policy wonks still nursing a post-Hillarycare hangover, he’s the hair of the dog. But he left his state in the hands of a Republican governor. What went wrong?

Obvious point: Who?

Less-than-obvious point: Not a bad pick for veep. The Democrats need someone who can compete with the new Republican Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, when it comes to saving the lives of passers-by.

Sharpton. Many who recall the ugly Tawana Brawley incident of the late 1980s (and if you don’t, consider yourself lucky) will have a tough time accepting Sharpton as a legitimate political voice. And he has steadfastly refused to apologize for his inflammatory role in that nasty episode, proclaiming his defiant stance evidence of his strength and commitment. There is also his reported stint as an FBI snitch in the 1980s. Does that count as previous government experience? (Sharpton denied he had been an informant.) But in recent years, Sharpton has recast himself as the Jesse Jackson stand-in–he hails Jackson as his “surrogate father”–in part by doing some heavy lifting on police brutality and racial profiling. Yet he has not followed the Jackson model in reaching out beyond his racial-issues base. He may develop the most straight-down-the-line progressive message of all the candidates, centered on an unflinching opposition to the war against Iraq. But can he revive the twin foundations of Jackson’s influential candidacies of 1984 and 1988–coalitional progressive politics and a Southern strategy that nets delegates? An early guess: no. Weighed down by his own history, Sharpton has not yet demonstrated he can expand his vision. He has trimmed down but not reinvented himself nearly far enough.

Obvious point: I have a scheme. (Sorry, old biases die hard.)

Less-than-obvious point: If he does show an ability to attract significant support among African-American voters, will the white candidates court that bloc less?

And the other candidates? They have to dip more than a toe in the water to warrant a preliminary and sketchy assessment. It’s explore-or-get-off-the-train time. The pith helmets are going fast.