Less than three months before the first votes are cast in the 2004 presidential primaries, three of the nine Democratic presidential contenders are taking a major gamble in hopes of winning the party's presidential nomination next year.
The midwest state of Iowa will begin the battle for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination on January 19. But three of the nine Democratic contenders have decided not to waste any more time or money competing for votes in Iowa, and will instead concentrate on the later primaries.
Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, retired General Wesley Clark and North Carolina Senator John Edwards are now staking their hopes on a strong showing either in the New Hampshire primary, one week after the Iowa contest, or in the South Carolina primary, which will be held in early February.
Iowa begins a process of nationwide Democratic primaries and caucuses used to select delegates to the Democratic National Convention to be held in Boston in July. The convention will select a nominee to face off against President Bush in November, 2004.
President Bush is not expected to face any opposition to his re-election bid within the Republican Party.
Senator Edwards is pinning his hopes for the Democratic nomination on a populist message that he believes will attract more support in states like South Carolina. "I don't believe in George Bush's America," he said. "I still believe in an America where the son of a mill worker could beat the son of a president for the White House."
General Clark and Senators Edwards and Lieberman are all trailing far behind in public opinion polls in Iowa. The polls indicate that Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean are vying for the top spot in Iowa, and that Howard Dean is also leading all the Democrats in New Hampshire.
"This country needs a different Washington, somebody from the outside to go in, change it, keep the promises we've all been making for all these years, but have never kept," said Mr. Dean.
Traditionally, Democratic presidential candidates must be at least competitive in the early contest states of Iowa and New Hampshire to have any chance of winning the party's presidential nomination.
"If you don't do well in at least one of those two primaries, it is difficult to hang around very long and be taken seriously as a candidate after that, explained William Mayer, a political science professor at Northeastern University in Boston.
He said the three candidates who have chosen to skip Iowa are, in his words, "making a virtue out of necessity." Professor Mayer said rather then risk a poor showing in the first presidential contest, they are now concentrating on making a breakthrough after Iowa in either New Hampshire or South Carolina.
"What I think this does do is make New Hampshire more significant for all three of these candidates," added Mr. Mayer. "They have now effectively sort of raised the stakes for the New Hampshire primary in every case, and if they don't do well there, then I think they are going to have trouble convincing people in subsequent states that they are a viable candidate."
History suggests candidates who skip either Iowa or New Hampshire do not fare well later in the primary process. Unknown Democrat Jimmy Carter vaulted into public prominence with his strong showing in Iowa in 1976, and eventually became president.
The other danger for candidates who skip the important early contests is that voters in both parties tend to want to vote for winners as the primary season goes along. Professor Mayer said that is why candidates who do well in the early primaries can build on their momentum later on.
"When voters show up at the polls in an election like this, and there are five or six candidates there, they don't want to vote for somebody who they may really like, but who they think has absolutely no chance of winning the nomination," said Professor Mayer.
The other Democratic presidential contenders for 2004 are Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, former Illinois Senator and Ambassador Carol Moseley-Braun and New York civil rights activist Al Sharpton.