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So many Demos, so much time until 2004 vote

WASHINGTON — These days, it seems every Democrat is running for president. When Sen. Bob Graham of Florida formed his presidential exploratory committee last week, he became the ninth Democrat to jump in, with another four thinking about it. This surfeit has cheered party leaders struggling to recover from their gloomy election in 2002.

"We have nine candidates, every day traveling the country, doing outreach, bringing new people into the party," said Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic Party chairman. "I honestly think it's great for the party."

It may be a great thing for the party, but is it a good thing for the candidates? This shoulder-to-shoulder competition has the potential to create all kinds of mischief before a winner rises from the mist, from nasty fights among candidates scrambling for attention to a mass pre-emptive tune-out by an electorate unable to process so many candidates saying so many things.

The potential for complication has become most immediately obvious to the Democratic organizations, advocacy groups and news outlets that are trying to set up debates or dinners featuring the men and women who would like to challenge President Bush.

A standard 90-minute debate with 13 candidates would give each Democrat barely seven minutes for opening and closing statements, and answers to questions. Ideally, a sponsor interested in organizing a meaningful debate would like to limit it to, say, the six top-tier candidates.

But who decides what top tier means? Most Democrats would include the three senators — Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, John Edwards of North Carolina and John Kerry of Massachusetts — as well as Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, the former House minority leader. But why not Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, who has stolen the show with his energetic speeches at more than a few Democratic gatherings, and has arguably spent more time campaigning than any of them?

Or Carol Moseley Braun, a former senator from Illinois, who, aides note, has represented more people in Congress than anyone else vying for a place on the ticket? Or Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, who serves alongside Gephardt in the House? Who is going to say no to the Rev. Al Sharpton, who convincingly argues that he is as well known as anybody in the field?

"With all due respect, Kucinich and Moseley Braun have no chance of getting the nomination," said William G. Mayer, a political science professor at Northeastern University, a statement that Democratic Party officials would not venture publicly, but would not dispute privately. "But it makes it difficult for the electorate to pay sufficient attention to the candidates they ought to. Even somebody like Gephardt will find it difficult to find his voice heard."

The complications for the top-tier candidates go beyond just being overshadowed (or rather undershadowed) by candidates like Kucinich or Braun. Most of the longer-shot candidates have no strong ties to the party, and since they are focusing on the primaries rather than the general election, they can be less inhibited in presenting a hard-edged partisan message that appeals to many primary voters.

That has been particularly true on the issue of war in Iraq. More mainstream candidates like Lieberman, Gephardt, Edwards and Kerry have offered support for removing Hussein, trying to place themselves firmly in the political center. But Kucinich, Braun, Sharpton and Dean have been attacking the war with abandon. Already, Republicans have seized on that to reinforce a left-of-center image.

Specific candidates face specific problems. For example, Edwards has built his strategy on a strong showing in the South, powered by a strong showing among black Democratic voters.

But both Sharpton and Braun are seeking to become the first black president, and while it seems unlikely now that either will achieve that honor, they could certainly take votes away from Edwards in the very place and at the very time he needs them. All that said, though, the real victims of this abundance of candidates will probably prove to be those very lesser-knowns. Lieberman, Gephardt, Edwards and Kerry are spending their days raising money, so they can break through the candidate clutter with television advertisements as 2004 approaches. But the rest of the field cannot match their fund-raising.

Since Jimmy Carter won the presidential nomination in 1976, there has been an idealized notion in American politics that an unknown and underfinanced candidate can head to New Hampshire and Iowa and, with hard work and a compelling case, have as good a chance of winning the nomination as any heavyweight in the party. Dean built his candidacy on this model, which has made him intriguing to many Democrats.

But these days, Dean can hardly step off an airplane in Iowa or New Hampshire without crossing paths with Kucinich or Braun or Sharpton. That means Dean has to struggle a bit more to get his face on the evening news in Des Moines and Manchester.

It is an ideological problem as well. At first, Dean had a sound strategy in appealing directly to liberal voters. He is now one of four competing for that same pie.

Finally, and perhaps most elementary, how is anyone supposed to keep track of all these people? When Kucinich appeared at the winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee in Washington last weekend — where two separate mornings were set aside just to accommodate all the candidate speeches — he began by offering the spelling and pronunciation of his name.