Archive for Tuesday, February 19, 2002

Two years before first primary, leading Democrats hit the road

February 19, 2002

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— Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., hopped a plane Saturday morning for California, delivered a speech to the state Democratic convention, met with a few important people, raised some money and planned to be home before sundown Sunday night.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., arrived in California ahead of Edwards, held several fund-raisers on Friday, spoke to the convention Saturday and had two more fund-raisers scheduled before the day's end. His press secretary, David Wade, described it as a "great, busy political weekend."

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., also attended the state convention in Los Angeles, and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, of Missouri, was in California during the holiday weekend. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., arrives early in the week for a political swing up the coast and what aides say will be a "major speech" on the environment.

The travels of these Democratic politicians reflect the weird reality of presidential politics. Long before the first primaries of 2004, months before the 2002 midterm elections, and well before most Americans care, they are out on the circuit. What they hope is to create the buzz that will lead to early favorable reviews, financial support and eventually enough political momentum to carry them to the nomination two years from now.

Some may decide not to run in 2004. But like Olympic athletes, whose preparation began years before the Salt Lake City games, the potential Democratic candidates have begun the training exercises that will show whether they are ready for the endurance test of the grueling nomination process.

Their schedules include past and upcoming trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, the states that traditionally open the nominating battle, and to other states likely to hold early primaries in 2004.

Gathering forces

In mid-April, many of the presidential hopefuls who gathered in California over the weekend will travel to Florida for a state Democratic convention, where they will be joined by former vice president Al Gore, who has begun to stir this month after a year in hibernation. In the past week, he delivered a speech on foreign policy and issued two statements sharply critical of President Bush on the environment.

Several factors drive this early activity. One is the belief that the race for the 2004 Democratic nomination will be wide open. Gore remains by far the best known of the potential candidates, but many Democratic activists including some who strongly supported him in 2000 do not want Gore to run again. If he does, he will face a crowded field of opponents, unlike 2000, when many potential rivals decided not to challenge him. If Gore does not run, then the race will be anyone's to win.

As always, party rules dictate the pace of early activity. The Democratic Party voted last month to change its primary and caucus calendar. Iowa and New Hampshire retain their favored spots at the front of the line, but other states now can schedule their primaries in February 2004, rather than waiting until March.

South Carolina Democrats already have voted to move their primary to early February, and other states are expected to do the same. The potential candidates are taking note. Kerry and Edwards plan to speak to the South Carolina Democratic convention in May; Gephardt will address the Arizona Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, conscious that Arizona likely will be one of the early contests two years from now.

California remains a Mecca for Democratic political money. Daschle and Gephardt will raise money for their respective party campaign committees to fund House and Senate candidates this fall. Kerry, too, will be raising money for his re-election campaign. But the impressions they make and the networks they create will be crucial to financing a costly presidential campaign.

The other lure is California's vast pool of delegates, the largest prize available to a presidential candidate. California politicians are considering whether to move their primary from early March to sometime in February 2004. If they do, the race for the Democratic nomination will favor the candidate who can appeal to the party's left-leaning constituencies and spend the millions required to air television commercials to reach voters.

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