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US Presidential Contenders Prepare for Big Test:  Iowa Caucuses

2004 is an election year in the United States. In November, voters will elect a president and a new Congress as well as 11 state governors. But the presidential selection process actually begins in a matter of days with the January 19 presidential caucuses in Iowa.

President Bush has no Republican opposition for a second term, so the early focus will be on which of nine Democrats will emerge as that party's presidential nominee.

At the moment the candidate with the best chance appears to be former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. A medical doctor by training, Mr. Dean emerged from relative obscurity during 2003 to become the Democratic frontrunner in both grass roots organizing and fundraising.

Mr. Dean leads his Democratic rivals in public opinion polls in the early contest states of Iowa and New Hampshire. His early and outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq appealed to liberal Democrats who angrily oppose President Bush's foreign policy.

"And it is going to be about our place in the world," he said. "Are we ready to resume the moral leadership of this world in this country or are we going to continue to support a president who has unilaterally ticked off [angered] every other country around, all those people who we need to help us."

Despite the label of Democratic frontrunner, none of Mr. Dean's rivals for the nomination are giving up. If anything, they are increasing their attacks in hopes of denting his armor, just as the primaries are about to begin.

"And I think I speak for every candidate up here," said Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. "This race is not over until votes have been cast and counted."

The first big test will come in Iowa on January 19, where opinion polls suggest that Mr. Dean has a slight lead over Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt.

"I am sure that all of us think that we have the best chance to beat George Bush," said Congressman Gephardt. "But I think we are all united in wanting to replace George Bush with a much better president. This president has let this country down in every possible way."

A week later, the Democratic race moves to New Hampshire, a primary that usually has a major impact on the presidential race.

From there, the Democratic nomination battle moves south and west into early February, with important contests in South Carolina, Arizona and Oklahoma. March 2 looms as a major day in the election calendar with 10 states holding primary or caucus elections, including California, New York and Ohio.

The primaries and caucuses are used to select delegates for the national nominating convention. The Democrats will hold theirs in Boston in July while the Republicans will convene in late August in New York City.

The other Democratic contenders are Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, North Carolina Senator John Edwards, retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley-Braun and New York civil rights activist Al Sharpton.

While the Democrats battle each other over the next several weeks, President Bush will have the advantage of focusing on the general election campaign that officially begins later this year.

But already a major theme of the president's re-election campaign is emerging and it has to do with the ongoing war on terrorism. "My job is to keep America secure," said Mr. Bush. "That is my job. I have got a solemn duty to do everything I can to protect the American people. I will never forget the lessons of September 11, 2001."

Two main issues are expected to dominate the 2004 election campaign, the domestic economy and the situation in Iraq.

"Democrats have two reasonable shots to win in 2004," commented analyst Larry Sabato of University of Virginia. "One is an economic surprise that is unpleasant, meaning a double dip recession. That seems unlikely.

"The second is for the Iraq involvement to become Vietnam without the jungle," continued Mr. Sabato. "That has a greater chance of happening. They need at least one of the two, they might need both to win. But they certainly need one of the two to win."

At the moment, the economy appears to be strengthening and the public mood on Iraq seems to be more positive in the wake of the recent capture of Saddam Hussein.

That should be good news for the president's re-election prospects according to Tom Defrank, the Washington bureau chief for the New York Daily News.

"But there is a sense that over the next six months, and this is certainly what the White House is saying, that Iraq will seem to be better," he said. "So the White House is banking on the trend line on Iraq and the economy to be better and they believe that if people feel like things are going to be better, that is enough to get him re-elected. We shall see."

The actual election is November 2. In addition to voting for president, Americans will also decide 34 of the 100 U.S. Senate seats, all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 11 state governors.

Presidential inauguration day is set for January 20, 2005.