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Will there be a latecomer to the race?

Published Oct. 10, 2005

For Democrats trying to pick their presidential nominee, the choices you see now are what you're likely to get.

As the Bill Clinton bandwagon hits some big potholes in New Hampshire, there's wistful talk among some Democrats that another candidate might yet get into the race for president.

House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, who ran four years ago, is among those frequently mentioned. So is Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, the Democrats' candidate for vice president in 1988. And there's New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who keeps saying "no" in ways that make some people hear "maybe."

But for reasons both practical and political, it would be difficult for any of the party's "heavyweights" to jump into the Democratic primary now. Although the party's convention is still five months away, more than half the delegates will be selected in contests whose filing deadlines already have passed, including the Florida primary March 10.

In fact, the Democrats purposely designed a primary selection process over the last two decades that discourages latecomers. Now, one of the architects of that system rues the results.

"I still think our best candidates are on the bench," said former Democratic national chairman John White. "If we set up a situation where we can't get our best candidates into the race, then we're going to lose, and we ought to lose."

Not everyone is so pessimistic. The current party chairman, Ron Brown, continues to profess support for the nominating system because it tends to select a candidate early. That candidate can then focus his campaign on beating George Bush rather than the other Democrats.

It seemed that things might work out that way, as long as Clinton was talking about the country's future instead of his own past. With the New Hampshire primary just four days away, Clinton is mired in messy questions about his marriage and his draft record.

The Democrats' new front-runner this week is Paul Tsongas, a former senator from Massachusetts who is running on a program to clean the country's economic house. Until a few weeks ago, Tsongas was so far down in the polls that the other Democrats and the press dismissed him as a decent, earnest fellow with good ideas.

Now that he is leading the pack in New Hampshire, Tsongas is starting to get some of the same intense scrutiny that scorched Clinton. A personal scandal seems out of the question. "I'm not on the front-page of any tabloid. I'm not on the front page of anything," Tsongas said last week.

But there will be more focus now on Tsongas' health (he recovered from cancer), his career as a director for several companies after he left Congress, and on his leadership abilities. (Translation: Some voters may find Tsongas a little dull.) The candidate himself acknowledges he could use a little style to go with all that economic substance.

Even if he wins in New Hampshire, it's not clear how Tsongas can capitalize on that victory in other states. Asked where else his campaign has laid the groundwork of organization, Tsongas does not mention any of the big states with elections on Super Tuesday, March 10.

Simon Ferro, the chairman of the Florida Democrats, did not know the name of Tsongas' state chairman when a reporter asked Wednesday, and had to look up the name of a local contact person for the campaign.

With President Bush's popularity on a slide, some better-known Democrats are being encouraged to reconsider their decision to sit this one out.

In New Hampshire, Cuomo enthusiasts are organizing a write-in campaign. In Washington, old hands like Bentsen are getting lots of calls. "He listens. He's flattered. But his position is, he's not a candidate," said Jack DeVore, the Texas senator's press secretary.

Tsongas says he would welcome the arrival of some Washington insider who would have to answer the question about why he had waited until Bush's approval percentages were in the 40s. Tsongas points out that he started running when Bush was getting marks in the 90s, and asks: "Are you prepared for a 50 percent courage gap?"

But the more compelling argument against a late entry into the Democratic primary involves basic arithmetic. Primary filing deadlines are passing almost every day.

New York, which sends more delegates to the convention than any state but California, closed its ballot Thursday for the April 7 primary. Pennsylvania follows next Tuesday, the day of the New Hampshire vote, and Ohio two days later.

"It would take a very courageous person to move into that scenario," said White, the former Democratic chairman. Even if a new candidate filed immediately for every remaining election and won every possible delegate, the total would fall well short of the total needed for nomination.

Still, a sweep by some new candidate of the late primaries, including California on June 2, would be "an emotionally cataclysmic event" with a profound effect on the convention, said White.

It has been 40 years since it took a political convention more than one ballot to nominate its presidential candidate. This year, it's just possible the Democratic convention could once again go beyond ceremony and provide some real excitement.