The wannabes are coming out of the woodwork. Six Democrats have announced their desire for the White House–and that number could double if all the presumed dabblers dive in. The challenge for each, of course, is differentiating himself from the competition. When it comes to brand distinction, the candidates and their keepers tend to speak in meta-terms. Joe Lieberman, with his values shtick and pro-business rhetoric, says he’s a “different kind of Democrat”–echoing the phrase George W. Bush used slyly in 2000. John Kerry is Mr. Gravitas, who understands war and peace while showing hints of Massachusetts liberalism. Dick Gephardt, the experienced Midwestern pol specializing in what he would call working-family economics, is the Man from Labor. John Edwards, the new (pretty) boy on the block, is the Southern populist, a millionaire trial attorney who (shades of Grisham!) fights for “regular people.” Howard Dean is Dr. Candidate–literally: a no-nonsense doctor-turned-governor from Vermont who successfully achieved healthcare for kids in his state while balancing the budget. And Al Sharpton is the wake-up, protest contender, the heir to candidate Jesse Jackson.

But what separates these guys when it comes to the issues? Are there differences that do or will matter? Primary races do not always turn on specific positions. And most of the Dems in the race are in sync with one another when it comes to the Big Picture stuff: against the Bush tax cut, for abortion rights, opposed to Social Security privatization, in favor of strengthening environmental protections. War in Iraq is a major exception–and we’ll get to that. But issues do get deployed in campaigns to prove the meta-cases candidates make. Since these candidates generally agree on much, the issue differences that do exist may well become magnified. And even if the field expands, the narrow ideological scope of the contest may not change–unless Representative Dennis Kucinich, the head of the Progressive Caucus, joins in and is able to attract attention. Others waiting–or pondering–in the wings are Florida Senator Bob Graham, Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd, Delaware Senator Joseph Biden, former senator and onetime presidential candidate Gary Hart, former Senator Carol Moseley-Braun and former NATO Comdr. Wesley Clark.

So where do the as-of-now candidates themselves see the important policy contrasts? I contacted the campaigns of the six first-wave contestants and asked how their man stood apart from the others in terms of issues. “Yikes,” said Michael Briggs, the press secretary for Senator Edwards of North Carolina. “I haven’t taken that close a look at all their records. There may be a few modest areas of differences on tax policy.” Edwards is promoting a $500 energy tax credit, he said, while Kerry supports a smaller version. Moving on to a grander topic, Briggs noted that Edwards was an eager co-sponsor of the resolution authorizing Bush to declare war against Saddam Hussein when he sees fit (though Edwards has slammed Bush for managing a foreign policy of “arrogance without purpose”). But the usually hawkish Lieberman has also been a cheerleader for the war, and Gephardt embraced the authorization measure. Kerry adopted a skeptical approach to the possible war–but ended up voting for the legislation. Dean, however, has flat-out opposed the movement toward war, explaining that he would not endorse military action unless Bush can prove Saddam possesses nuclear weapons. Sharpton, too, is a firm foe of military action.

“What differentiates Gephardt?” asks a senior aide to the Congressman. “It’s his experience in the decision-making process.” No, no–issues, stick to issues. OK, he says, Gephardt’s campaign platform will include calls for universal health insurance, universal preschool, a teachers’ corps (to bring educators to rural and inner-city areas) and an Apollo-like project for renewable energy. And there’s tax reform–a wonkish issue to which Gephardt has devoted much time in the past, proposing a simplification in which three-quarters or so of taxpayers would pay a low rate, maybe 10 percent, with almost no deductions (except for home mortgages and health insurance). What about trade? Gephardt battled against NAFTA. Kerry and Lieberman are free-traders who voted to grant Bush fast-track authority to negotiate unamendable trade pacts. Edwards voted against fast track, and Dean says he opposed it, adding that he’s for accords that include provisions establishing environmental and labor standards. Will Gephardt trumpet his anti-NAFTA past to court labor-minded voters? “Talking about NAFTA is over,” the Gephardt aide says. “Trade may come up. But he’ll be talking about it in a new way, such as discussing the idea of pushing for an international minimum wage at the World Trade Organization.”

Differentiation is “easy for us,” says Rick Ridder, Dean’s campaign manager. He shoots off three bullet points: healthcare (“he did it”); the war in Iraq (“the only candidate”–among the officeholders–“who opposed the resolution”); and the Leave No Child Behind Act (“he would have voted against it”). Dean’s beef with the education bill–which required more performance-measured testing in schools–was that it created an unfunded mandate for the states (which would lead to local tax hikes) and placed too much emphasis on testing. His three Senate rivals all voted for the bill. Like most national Democrats these days, Dean, who just finished his last term as governor, talks up fiscal responsibility, and might do so most among the candidates. (Edwards has emphasized curtailing “excessive spending,” while eliminating tax breaks for special interests.) And Dean offers distinctions on two hot-button social issues. He boasts–and he does boast about it–a 100 percent rating from the National Rifle Association (though he favors extending the assault-weapons ban). And he signed the controversial legislation recognizing civil unions between gays and lesbians. Lieberman and Gephardt in 1996 voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, a device to block gay marriage; Kerry, his aides brag, was the only incumbent senator running for re-election to vote against it. (Edwards was not yet in politics.)

Lieberman’s lieutenants claim his early support for a Homeland Security Department–which predated Bush’s cover-your-ass embrace of the new government entity–as a leader-of-the-pack position. (Edwards has been pushing for a new domestic intelligence agency targeting terrorists, and Kerry has been an intermittent critic of the way Bush has waged the war on terrorism in Afghanistan.) The Lieberman camp proudly maintains that he was the first in the field to call for freezing the Bush tax cuts. Kerry and Edwards have taken similar stands, but Dean has urged repealing almost all of the 2001 cuts. (Gephardt, no friend of these tax cuts, ducked the issue as House minority leader.) The Lieberman gang does not openly peddle Lieberman, a past chair of the Democratic Leadership Council, as the conservative choice. “The idea that he’s more conservative is a red herring,” says a senior aide. “He’s more independent.” And it’s not that he’s “pro-business,” this aide insists, but “pro-growth.” Lieberman has been passionate about “tort reform”–of which Edwards is no fan. But the aide quickly points to Lieberman’s support for a patients’ bill of rights and prescription drug benefits to show he is not beholden to the insurance industry of his home state, Connecticut. Lieberman has voiced support for school vouchers as an experiment in limited circumstances, but not as a substitute for comprehensive public education reform. Kerry voted against vouchers, and Gephardt has decried them. A few years back, Lieberman wondered aloud about partially privatizing Social Security and then, he says, decided it was a lousy idea. While not using the c-word, his team does pitch him as a fellow who, as this aide puts it, “has broken from Democratic orthodoxy.” And his advisers happily acknowledge that his finger-wagging at the entertainment media for marketing violent and sleazy products does distinguish him from the others. “Tossing tough love at friends is not a Democratic strong suit,” says the aide.

Kerry’s crew can cite several issues that make him a standout. He is, a top Kerry aide says, “the only candidate in the field who has voted against the bankruptcy bill all the time.” That was a measure sought by the credit-card industry and condemned by consumer groups. A former prosecutor, Kerry is the only contender among the officeholders who opposes the death penalty, though he has raised the prospect of supporting it for terrorists. (Dean backs capital punishment only in cases involving the murder of a child or a police officer.) Most of the candidates have environmental credentials to flash, but Kerry aides say he has been one of the best friends of the enviro lobby, advocating higher fuel-mileage standards and threatening to filibuster against oil drilling in the Alaskan wilderness. On the issues, is he a straight-out liberal? His advisers like to cite what one calls his “occasional independence and break from conventional Democratic thinking.” But that independence has taken on varying guises. There was the bankruptcy-bill vote (thirty-six of fifty Democrats backed the industry-friendly measure). Then there was the time, while he was working with the DLC on an education reform package, he called for ending teacher tenure and assailed “stultifying collective-bargaining agreements” with teachers’ unions (after the Massachusetts teachers’ union had helped him win re-election). And he has called for zero capital-gains taxes on investments in certain critical technology companies. (Lieberman advocates a similar notion.) Yet in a more populist vein, Kerry has called for a payroll tax holiday on the first $10,000 of income ($765 for every worker). Dean calls this “completely irresponsible.”

As for Sharpton, he doesn’t face the issues differentiation problem. (His office did not return a call seeking guidance.) On a recent Meet the Press appearance he laid out his game plan for “fundamental change”: a $50-billion-per-year “alternative infrastructure revival” to create jobs; the establishment of a right to healthcare and a right to education; the protection of affirmative action; no to war in Iraq. Asked why he ought to be President, Sharpton declared, “Because the United States today sits in a global village. The world, because of technology and communication, is one village. And I, more than anyone talking about running, understand that village and, I feel, represent the priorities that the village must deal with in order to survive as a planet.” If Kerry and Lieberman end up arguing over the finer points of their education plans, Sharpton will not be at that table.

So do Democrats want an antiwar nominee who champions gay rights and gun rights? A war-on-Iraq fan who advocates raising wages overseas? A foe of capital punishment who assails the education bureaucracy? If Briggs is right in saying the “big issues differences might be pretty narrow,” perhaps the campaign will be shaped by quarreling over the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste depository in Nevada (Dean and Edwards, for; Kerry and Lieberman, against). No doubt, there will be brawling over issues, votes and policy positions. The campaigns are only beginning to comb through the records and remarks of the competition. Let’s hope they find useful ammunition. The more the candidates resort to issues to reinforce their self-crafted images and to challenge those of their opponents, the better the debate will be.