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Democrats' short but heavy burden

Published Sep. 2, 2005

There has always been a risk that Terry McAuliffe's decision to speed up the race for the Democratic presidential nomination would backfire on his party _ and now that risk looms larger than ever.

It was McAuliffe, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who urged the rules change that permitted other states to move their primaries and caucuses closer to the January contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. The predictable land rush almost assures that McAuliffe will achieve his goal of identifying President Bush's opponent before the middle of March _ the exact time when the delegate selection process used to begin.

McAuliffe argued that the Democrats should finish their nominating process as early as possible, so the party could rally around the winner and fundraisers could accelerate the effort to equip that candidate with the cash he will need to compete against Bush's millions.

It was not a crazy theory, and it might have worked, if only the Democrats had found a legitimate front-runner. If Al Gore had decided to try again, chances are he would have led the polls from the beginning and would have benefited if scattered rivals were dispatched before spring. In Gore's absence, if Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut had been able to capitalize on his role as the vice presidential nominee in 2000 and make himself the consensus candidate of the party establishment, he also might have been helped by an early primary calendar. But Gore didn't run and Lieberman hasn't been able to assert his claim. And Hillary Rodham Clinton, who might have mopped the floor with all of the Democratic wannabes, said "No thanks" for '04.

The result is that the Democratic field is essentially leaderless, which means that whoever is chosen by March to carry the banner is someone largely unknown to voters today. That is a heavy burden to carry into a race against an incumbent president.

Along with six other Washington Post reporters, I spent the last part of October interviewing voters in different sections of the country. All of us found the same thing. Outside of Iowa and New Hampshire, the field of nine Democrats is basically a blur of undefined faces and voices to those who will elect the next president. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and retired Gen. Wesley Clark were the two names most often mentioned to us _ though it was not uncommon for people to struggle to recall the surnames _ probably because they got the most attention on TV in October.

When Post pollsters Richard Morin and Claudia Deane asked a large sampling of Democrats to evaluate their candidates, the impression of a leaderless field was confirmed. Only four Democrats had managed to break into double digits in support: Dean, Lieberman, Clark and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri. Dean led with just 16 percent; the others were bunched at 13 or 12. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts was fifth, with 8 percent.

When asked how much they knew about these five misnamed "front-runners," only one-third of the Democrats polled claimed to know a great deal or a good amount about Lieberman, the best-known of the pack. And his numbers were twice as high as those for Gen. Clark. You think Howard Dean, who leads in New Hampshire polls and is challenging Gephardt in Iowa, has impressed the Democrats around the country? More than half of them said they know nothing or hardly anything about his personal qualities or his positions on issues.

Of course, voters will learn a lot more about these men in the next four months, as the nomination fight moves from cable, print and the Internet and becomes a television story. That's the good news for the Democrats. The bad news is that much of what the voters learn will be negative, as largely unknown candidates try to tear down their opponents in order to gain a narrow plurality victory in the tidal wave of contests that will take place between mid-January and the second Tuesday in March.

You can see the teardown cycle beginning already for Dean. Even in his seemingly advantageous position, he has so little political capital in the bank it will be difficult for him to defend himself. McAuliffe's scheme to shorten the contest may not reduce the bloodletting. It may simply intensify it.

This schedule may be the best possible break for a vulnerable-looking president.

+ David Broder is a Washington Post columnist. +

Washington Post Writers Group