ABC 2004: The Invisible Primary

ByABC News

U P D A T E D, Feb 21, 2003: -- Somewhere in the cracks between January and February (fittingly, since we're just shy of a year out from the key early contests), the Invisible Primary became, um, visible.

Maybe it was currently frontrunning Sen. John Kerry talking about "when I'm president," or underdog Gov. Howard Dean attacking his more hawkish rivals over Iraq, or Rep. Dick Gephardt's full-blown announcement tour, but the contest for the Democratic nomination has exploded beyond fundraising and competing for key staff and activists into the great wide open.

We've basically hit the stage where, as one top campaign advisor pointed out, if something is going wrong for one candidate, it's probably because something is going right for another one. Thanks to the crowded field, there's a lot of elbowing taking place already.

Since we last wrote in October, the two most significant developments have been Kerry's well-orchestrated and aggressive early entry into the make-believe "exploratory" portion of the race, just before former Vice President Al Gore bowed out on 60 Minutes.

Kerry had the best 2002 of any candidate, the best fourth quarter of the year, and the best December, and the confluence of his entry and Gore's departure allowed him to consolidate the good-buzz-leads-to-good-clips-leads-to-good-staff-hires-and-fundraising-gains-leads-to-good-buzz-etc. dynamic, and fill the vacuum created by Gore's departure.

Kerry leads in our latest round of Invisible Primary Ratings, replacing Rep. Dick Gephardt, and as of this writing, even as he recovers from prostate cancer surgery, he continues to daisy-chain one advantage into another. Ask any of the other campaigns about Kerry, and while they won't necessarily agree that he is the frontrunner, they won't deny his staying power.

Our ratings take into account the factors that we believe are most determinant of who will become the Democratic nominee. And we aren't rating these candidates in terms of anything BUT their strengths and weaknesses in terms of winning the nomination.

Ranked in order (averaging the totals for each candidate), the lowest candidate is the leader so far. The closer to 1.0 a candidate is, the better he's doing.

For a complete look at how we report out our ratings and what they mean, click here

We are constantly reporting for our next update, so if you have arguments to make, bones to pick, suggestions, or comments, send them our way. E-mail The ABCNEWS Political Unit.

Even while Kerry has plowed ahead of the pack in many aspects of the Invisible Primary, the other candidates have used the period since the midterm elections to aggressively compete, with the chief battlegrounds being rich people who can raise money, national strategists and message-meisters, and key early-state activists.

After the holidays froze the Democratic field in place for a few weeks, Senator John Edwards left the gate right after New Year's with an "exploratory" rollout that filled up the big holiday news hole, followed by Gephardt's "exploratory" announcement just a few days later. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, after appearing to come to the brink of jumping in, got out instead.

In mid-January, Senator Joe Lieberman became the only candidate to clearly state, right off the bat, "I'm running for president." Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean had gotten in the race with little fanfare months ago, and Reverend Al Sharpton muddled his way in over time, finally filing his exploratory committee in late January. In recent days, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and former Senator Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois also have filed campaign committees with the FEC, bringing the field to eight candidates.

Senator Bob Graham, who has been holding a good chunk of Florida money hostage, intends to file an exploratory committee next week, despite doing almost nothing, as best we can tell, to cultivate activists or staff in key early states (of which Florida, while key in the general election, is not one). His filing would bring the field to nine.Sens. Chris Dodd and Joe Biden both are thinking about it, but if we had to bet, we'd say neither one goes.

Ditto former Senator Gary Hart, although he has been more active than either of those two. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark has made a few early moves and talks a lot about how people are asking him to consider running, but has not really indicated one way or the other.

Among those running or thinking about running, Kerry's emergence as the current leader — if not in the national polls, where Lieberman still does best — cuts across several of our categories.

As we've already Noted, if Kerry manages to more or less maintain his frontrunner status for the next year and wins the Democratic nomination, the consensus will be that he really won it in late 2002, with smart early preparations by top aides that have lately begun bearing fruit, and with some key staff hires.

Some of Kerry's rivals suggest that his early staffing up is costing him a lot of money at the start, and liken it to the beginning stages of the Gore 2000 campaign. We'll reserve comment until the FEC reports are out in April, and we suspect that some other campaigns also have their share of well-paid aides.

At least one high-profile Kerry adviser whom rivals often hold up as an example is, in fact, currently working for free, and we bet there will be some screaming about that. What seems to be the main reason for Kerry's current (and oft-denied by the man himself) status as the frontrunner is his Vietnam/military credentials and the resulting conventional wisdom among Democrats that he would pose their best chance of combating voters' perception that the party is weak on defense.

In 1999, the Republican party coalesced around candidate George W. Bush because after eight years of being shut out of the White House, they sensed that he could retake it.

Democrats on the whole are (almost) as eager to win back the presidency, but more divided over what they need in a candidate, none of whom possesses Bush's pedigree or golden fundraising touch. Kerry, who does appear presidential but lacks Bush's common-man demeanor, seems to solve their biggest weakness — national security bona fides — one for which they suffered badly in the 2002 elections.

While his rivals fight for press attention, Kerry has been at the center of a series of eye-catching events of late. The revelation that his grandfather was Jewish and had committed suicide, his wife's changing of her last name (from Heinz to Heinz Kerry), his prostrate cancer surgery, and his initial denial to a reporter that he was ill when he had, in fact, already been diagnosed, have all put the Senator front-and-center and showed his, and his campaign's, strengths and weaknesses.

On the plus side, after news broke of Kerry's then-imminent surgery, his team handled the Boston and national press in a manner as sophisticated as any campaign could be expected to pull off at this phase.

On the other hand, some of these episodes have fueled the perception (or, at least, the charge from rival camps) that Kerry is too Gore-like, that he doesn't know who he is, or that he's making it up as he goes along.

Even as Kerry appears to lead the field today, a feeling persists that in other ways, the nominating contest is still wide-open. It's still early in the process; labor seems inclined to hold its cards and not anoint any one candidate; and the front-loading of the calendar means that candidates still might try to bypass or de-emphasize Iowa or New Hampshire, and may have to play in several states at once.

Lieberman supporters, for instance, argue that this is where he will realize his advantages of name recognition and a centrist platform — that once it becomes necessary for the whole passel of candidates to play in several places at once, the well-known candidate whose message has the broadest reach will have the edge, even without having won in Iowa or New Hampshire.

On the other hand, the front-loaded calendar could wind up meaning that in order to win the nomination, a candidate will have to "win something, and the country has to know it, by February 3," as a strategist for another top-tier campaign said.

Another possibility is that the field could remain splintered, with a handful of candidates each performing well among their own constituencies and in one or two early states, their fundraising basically even, and we could be looking at a brokered nominating convention.

But we are a ways off from voting and delegate-counting, and we face a long year in which the candidates will be seeking to balance their time between travel, fundraising, press, and, oh right, the candidates "real" jobs, most of which involve representing constituents in Washington, DC.

Have patience, Al From: we still have a little ways to go before you and the Democratic Leadership Council really see your hoped-for "ideas primary," but the makings are there.

We have yet to see any of the candidates put forth any bold new ideas on par with, say, Bill Clinton on welfare reform, national service, and community policing in 1991-92. But on health care, the environment, investment in new technologies, the minimum wage and workers' issues, they are taking baby steps toward a dynamic, substantive debate, led most recently by Gephardt and his presidential announcement speech.

The biggest question for the next few months is, what will a seemingly likely war with Iraq do to the rhythm of this nominating contest? Even with the candidates starting early this cycle, the prospect of war is reinforcing the idea that this is a largely intramural contest in which the Republican White House need not engage.

We've seen the prospect of war manifest itself in several ways so far. Gephardt aides attribute his decision to make an early announcement tour to wanting to get it done before the war starts, while the rest of the candidates are waiting until later in the year. The risk for Gephardt, of course, is that it may just be too soon — that any bounce he gets out of this tour will be stymied by the war, or that he'll get overshadowed later on by his Democratic rivals' formal announcements.

As one senior strategist to a campaign noted, the prospect of war is requiring the candidates to modulate their tone somewhat, and acknowledge that this is what the news media and voters are focused on.

The war also became the first topic of a genuine substantive exchange between the candidates. Iraq for a time gave Dean the chance to try to distinguish himself as arguably the only potentially viable anti-war candidate.

It has helped fuel Kerry's current frontrunner status by highlighting his Vietnam credentials, and it also has brought Kerry's carefully eked out position scrutiny and charges of waffling from the press and some of his Democratic rivals.

Indeed, Dean too is coming under scrutiny for his arguable straddling of the issue by positioning himself to the left of the rest of the candidates, but leaving himself an out to support unilateral action.

Then there's the question of what happens when the war is over — if it proves to be successful, does an anti-war position or an ambiguous one become less popular in hindsight? If the war with Iraq goes well and President Bush emerges victorious, to the extent that a Democratic candidate could be cast by Republicans as having been less than 100-percent supportive of the effort, that might detract from the candidate's air of electability.

A few changes you'll notice from our previous looks at the Invisible Primary: for starters, we are only rating the original Six Pack, consisting of Dean, Edwards, Gephardt, Kerry, Lieberman and Sharpton, on the basis that they have filed with the Federal Election Commission and are well down the presidential campaign road.

As noted, Gore and Daschle have gotten out since we last ran our numbers, and for that reason, apples-to-apples comparisons can't be made. That should be kept in mind when considering how the overall ratings have changed since October, and we therefore are not even including the October ratings for the individual categories (although you can link to that edition here).

And here's a link to the dates and leaders of our previous Invisible Primary Ratings.

Assuming they stick with it, we will cover Kucinich and Moseley-Braun in our next round of ratings, but they are too new to the race to fully evaluate at this time. We're not writing off either of them, believing that they, like Sharpton, have potential to affect not only the debate but the outcomes of some key early-state contests, even though they appear to have no shot at winning the nomination.

Kucinich seems poised to gain traction among labor in Iowa, which could hurt Gephardt, and his willingness to say just about anything encroaches on Dean's claim to the "straight talk" title. Moseley-Braun, if she stays in the race, is poised to pick up African-American votes, including siphoning off some that otherwise might go to Sharpton, and the two of them could do well enough collectively in South Carolina to affect the outcome there.

The White House loves this big field, since it threatens to pull the more viable Democrats to the left, and allows Team Bush to use its "the Democrats have to fight it out among themselves" line well into this year, and beyond.

Something else to keep in mind about these ratings: when Sharpton places sixth, as he does in most categories, the gap between Sharpton and the fifth-ranked candidate is wider than the gaps between the top five. Sharpton does have particular advantages and skills — for example, his performance at the NARAL Pro-Choice American cattle call proved that as an orator, he can outshine the rest of the pack— but in most aspects of the Democratic nominating contest, he lags far behind the other five for now.

And one housekeeping note: we continue to tinker with, add and subtract categories as merited. For this round, we have added the new categories of "candidate spouse" and "the African-American vote." We have stopped rating the overall "base vote" and will start individually rating the candidates' standing among the party's various key constituencies -- African-Americans in this round, and enviros and some other groups in ensuing rounds.

And given that the Democratic National Committee is gathering in Washington at this writing, we will hold off on rating "party support" until next time. So, without further adieu, here are our latest overall ratings. Ranked in order (averaging the totals for each candidate), the lowest-scoring candidate is the leader so far. The closer to 1.0 a candidate is, the better he is doing.

As before, explanations of each category are located here.

Now that the field is basically set at a crowded "Six Pack Plus," perhaps to grow to even 10, we have to raise the possibility that one or more candidates may be forced to drop out by the end of this year due to — most likely — insufficient funds, or to unfortunate revelations about their backgrounds, or just a lack of traction.

Of the six, we expect all of the members of Congress — Edwards, Gephardt, Kerry and Lieberman — to have pretty strong showings for this first fundraising quarter, with the challenge obviously being to maintain or, ideally, increase the pace in ensuing quarters.

Still unanswered questions that will affect this keyest of key aspects of the Invisible Primary: will Kerry use personal funds? And what happens with the leftover "GELAC" money in the Gore-Lieberman legal compliance account -- is that available to Lieberman, and if so, in what capacity?

We have been advised that the Lieberman campaign is not banking on having access to that money.

The generally shared sense among close observers and top staff to these candidates is that these four can be expected to raise somewhere between $12 -$20 million in 2003, at a rate of $3-$5 million per quarter.

Lieberman, with his base of Jewish donors, and Kerry, with his claim to frontrunner status and the question of his wife's money (which cuts both ways), are widely expected to do the best this quarter.

We still aren't sure that all four of these gentlemen will get to even the low end of that range, but we'll know eventually. The candidate with the best first quarter, fundraising-wise, might not wind up being the candidate with the best first half, and so on.

Republicans have already made an issue of Edwards' raising money from trial lawyers, probably his biggest single source of funds, and he will need to broaden his base beyond that. Aides say he's working that hard. Some of the other Democrats will get some trial lawyer money, too — though not Lieberman, whose Connecticut base means he's the favored candidate of the insurance industry, not the legal community.

Edwards, Gephardt, Kerry and, to a lesser extent, the occasionally critical Lieberman are all mining Hollywood for cash, and Kerry anecdotally appears to be the favored candidate of Silicon Valley.

We'll be watching Gephardt's money this quarter and next especially closely, because of his relatively early announcement tour. Again, the Gephardt campaign attributes this decision to the war.

Of all the top-tier contenders, Gephardt's ability to expand upon his fundraising base and improve upon his intake, quarter by quarter, strikes us as potentially the weakest. Yes, his overseeing of the party's efforts to win back the House, albeit unsuccessful, gave him enviable access to fundraisers around the country.

At the same time, however, his long service in politics and his cautious message as the caucus leader -- we'll have to wait and see how his just rolled-out presidential message resonates — leave us wondering how he will appeal to new donors, and we suspect that if any in the top tier see a drop-off in fundraising over the course of the year, it may well be him.

One advisor to a member of the Six Pack suggested that the figure to look at is not so much how these candidates do this quarter, but what the differential is between them, if there is much of one.

It's tough to figure out where the expectations bar should be set -- $1 million? $2 million? — for Dean. He was still signing up a finance staff earlier this year and, because of that, a Dean source argues that his second-quarter tally would be a fairer barometer of how he's doing. Dean's money is likely to come from the constituencies — some of them traditionally Democratic, but some of them not -- who are drawn to him because of his positions (pro-gun, pro-gay, etc.).

Dean also seems to be generating the most excitement among younger Democratic staffers, which won't translate into campaign cash but could help fuel a grassroots network.

Whether or not the four top-tier candidates accept public matching funds is another big question, although we continue to be skeptical that any of them can raise enough to make this route the advantageous one.

Iowa and New Hampshire seem likely to retain their traditional sway over the process, even though Iowa has been pre-determined by some Master Pundits as a "must-win" for Gephardt and New Hampshire for Kerry. The battles in these states could be for second and third place and for proximity to the winners.

In New Hampshire, for example, the top-tier candidates could all pull in the high 'teens or around 20 percent; Kerry may not win with more than 30 percent.

The Kerry team will have to manage expectations so that 30 percent doesn't seem underwhelming, and they have already started that process. Ditto with the Gephardt campaign in Iowa.

It remains possible that a viable contender will decide to skip a key early-state contest. As mentioned above, Graham has done next to nothing in either Iowa or New Hampshire. In addition, while Lieberman currently is paying attention to Iowa, his position on ethanol subsidies might hurt his chances there -- as he himself has acknowledged.

Dean's retirement from the Vermont governorship means that he can visit the early states much more frequently than the sitting lawmakers who still have to worry about votes, and anecdotal evidence and the few state polls we've seen suggest that he is gaining ground in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. To say he slips across the Granite State border every few days is not an exaggeration.

But there's some question about whether Dean will wear well with voters after several visits; his frank talk is appealingly McCain-like, but he lacks the Arizona Senator's disarming sense of humor, and is far more aggressive.

As of this writing, Arizona, Maine and Missouri have moved their contests up to the same date as South Carolina's, February 3, and others may follow suit, somewhat threatening South Carolina's role as the next key state contest after Iowa and New Hampshire.

Even so, the media still is likely to accord South Carolina attention and influence because it still is the only early-state contest in which African-American voters will play a key role (though in Arizona, Hispanic voters may play an equally key role), and because it will be the first state contest in which Sharpton (and, if she's still in the race, Moseley-Braun) may really affect the outcome.

Moreover, the Edwards team flat-out acknowledges that the state is a must-win for their native and neighboring Senator, though Gephardt may snag the endorsement of Rep. Jim Clyburn, and anecdotally, Kerry also is doing well there.

South Carolina also will benefit from the media's unusually large role in determining which contests "matter" disproportionately, and the state's tradition (albeit mostly on the Republican side) of holding a key early contest, historically the most important after Iowa and New Hampshire, is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How the African-American vote will come down across the board may, in hindsight, wind up being one of the most misjudged aspects of the entire Democratic nominating process. The black community is not monolithic; blacks in the South tend to be more conservative than blacks who live in northern states, and Southern blacks may not be drawn to the Sharpton style the way some expect.

Also, some of the white Democratic candidates will have appeal for them: Lieberman with his emphasis on faith, Edwards' talk of civil rights, etc.

Kerry has signed up former Democratic National Committee executive director Minyon Moore to help with outreach on this front.

Another calendar-related question: will any candidate decide to give Gephardt a run for his money in Missouri, to pick up some delegates?

Here's another thing we wonder about: where is Lieberman's first win? He may be making inroads in Arizona, which has a good-sized Jewish population. And he is likelier than most to have enough money to stay in the race for awhile without some victories.

But will he need a victory early on to pump oxygen into his effort? Again, the Lieberman team believes his broad message will be an advantage going into February 2004 when several states hold key contests at once.

One big reason why the nominating contest feels wide open is the sense that labor is holding its cards — the AFL-CIO is generally expected not to endorse a candidate until a nominee emerges. If Democrats on the whole are itching to nominate the candidate best positioned to beat President Bush, labor is frantic to. Bush's efforts to peel off some labor support appear to have worked only (if at all) with the Teamsters and the carpenters, and beyond that, some of the socially conservative rank-and-file.

Gephardt, of course, has long, deep relations to labor, while the other candidates' ties are more superficial, or rooted in their staffs' relations with labor groups. The public employee unions, which don't care about trade, are more open to supporting a candidate other than Gephardt and in fact, AFSCME loves Kerry. The building trades and industrial unions are more likely to stick with Gephardt.

Teachers, it seems, are up for grabs.

Another reason why the Invisible Primary has become more visible is the emergence, in some cases, of the Candidate Spouse. Between her husband's prostate cancer, her decision to change her name, and her refreshing outspokenness, Teresa Heinz Kerry is the highest profile spouse. But Hadassah Lieberman, who just co-authored a book with her husband, is the only one to have recently gone through a national campaign. Elizabeth Edwards just made her first solo trip to New Hampshire. Likely to stay out of the spotlight: Jane Gephardt and Judy Dean.

Money potential

1. Kerry, Lieberman 3. Edwards, Gephardt 5. Dean 6. Sharpton

Message/bio ("Message" is now divided between "bio" -- think about a convention video, personal connections to issues, and testimonials -- and "issues")

1. Kerry 2. Edwards 3. Dean, Lieberman 5. Gephardt6. Sharpton


1. Gephardt 2. Dean3. Kerry4. Edwards, Lieberman 6. Sharpton

Spouse (A new addition.)

1. Lieberman2. Edwards, Kerry4. Dean, Gephardt6. Sharpton


1. Gephardt2. Kerry3. Dean, Edwards 5. Lieberman6. Sharpton

New Hampshire

1. Kerry2. Gephardt 3. Dean, Edwards5. Lieberman6. Sharpton

Other states

1. Gephardt2. Edwards, Kerry, Lieberman 5. Dean, Sharpton

Perceived electability:

1. Kerry2. Lieberman3. Edwards4. Gephardt5. Dean6. Sharpton

In-person campaigning skills

1. Edwards2. Sharpton3. Lieberman4. Dean, Kerry6. Gephardt

TV campaigning skills

1. Kerry 2. Lieberman3. Gephardt 4. Edwards5. Sharpton6. Dean

National security credentials (Note name change.)

1. Kerry2. Lieberman3. Gephardt4. Edwards5. Dean6. Sharpton

Media coverage

1. Kerry2. Edwards3. Lieberman4. Dean5. Gephardt6. Sharpton

Buzz and momentum

1. Kerry 2. Edwards 3. Dean 4. Sharpton 5. Lieberman6. Gephardt

The Clinton factor

1. Kerry 2. Edwards 3. Lieberman4. Dean, Gephardt, Sharpton

Polling/name ID

1. Lieberman2. Kerry3. Gephardt4. Edwards5. Sharpton6. Dean

Fire in the belly

1. Dean, Kerry3. Edwards 4. Gephardt5. Lieberman, Sharpton


1. Gephardt2. Kerry3. Lieberman4. Edwards5. Dean6. Sharpton


1. Gephardt2. Kerry3. Dean4. Edwards5. Lieberman6. Sharpton


1. Lieberman, Edwards 3. Sharpton, Kerry5. Gephardt6. Dean


1. Edwards2. Dean3. Kerry 4. Sharpton 5. Gephardt 6. Lieberman


1. Kerry 2. Edwards, Gephardt4. Lieberman5. Dean6. Sharpton