ABC 2004: The Invisible Primary

ByABC News
December 18, 2001, 1:52 PM

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.