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Democrats Gearing Up for 2004 Presidential Elections - 2002-12-14

Several prominent members of the U.S. Democratic Party face an important decision in the next several weeks - whether to run for president in 2004.

When it comes to running for president, it is never too early. Just ask Massachusetts Senator John Kerry who has already formed a presidential campaign committee and expects to make a formal announcement of his candidacy in early 2003. "We have to change our politics," he said. "We have to begin to put those choices on the table for our fellow Americans. That is the purpose of doing this and in the end the American people will decide who the right person is."

Political experts say getting a presidential campaign off to an early start is essential. Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were relative unknowns two years before they won their presidential elections.

University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato says the race for the 2004 Democratic nomination is already well under way, even if most Americans are paying little attention. "But now, our nominating process is so complicated that the Democratic [presidential] nomination will be decided pretty much between mid-January and mid-March of 2004," said Larry Sabato. "That is about a year away. Given the amount of money that has to be raised, the amount of organizing that has to take place in all of the key states, it is a miracle that they can do it in a year. Some of these candidates have been organizing privately and raising money privately for more than two years already."

It appears that the Democrats will have no shortage of contenders for the 2004 nomination, even though President Bush continues to get high approval ratings in public opinion polls.

Perhaps the biggest unknown at the moment is whether former Vice President Al Gore will seek the nomination again in 2004. Some Democrats believe he deserves another shot after his razor-thin loss to George W. Bush two years ago. Others contend Mr. Gore is to blame for his defeat and want a fresh face in 2004.

The former vice president told NBC television that voters will see a different Al Gore if he decides to run, a decision he is expected to make by early January. "Letting the cards fall where they may, letting the chips fall where they may," said Al Gore. "Just let it rip [be natural] and let the rest of it sort itself out and whether I am a candidate again or not, that is what I intend to do."

The other Democrats considering a run for president are not as well known as Mr. Gore. But political analyst Larry Sabato says none of them seem intimidated by the prospect of another Gore campaign. "Some of them are actually hoping that Gore will run," he said. "They see an opportunity to beat Gore in the primaries and thereby become much more substantial as a candidate for president than they would be otherwise. If they can bring down Goliath, then suddenly David becomes more significant. So all things considered, I don't think Gore has frightened off a single candidate."

The list of potential Democratic presidential contenders is a mix of the well-known and the obscure. In addition to Mr. Gore and Senator John Kerry, other high profile Democrats considering a bid include Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt and Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle.

Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman would also like to run for president. He was Al Gore's running mate in 2000, but has pledged not to run if Mr. Gore does.

Finally, in the less than well known category are two Democrats who could surprise. Vermont Governor Howard Dean has been the most active candidate so far while North Carolina Senator John Edwards is emerging as a favorite among some moderate Democrats.

All of them are expected to decide whether to make a run by early in the New Year.

Part of VOA's Year End series