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Last Updated: Friday, 5 September, 2003, 13:41 GMT 14:41 UK
Can Democrats topple Bush?

By Justin Webb
BBC correspondent in Washington

Maybe just maybe they could win, not just win the nomination mind you, but win the presidency.

The economy is still not firing on all cylinders, jobs lost since George W Bush came to power have not been refound and the Iraq plan is plainly in danger of unravelling.

This is a potentially vulnerable president.

George Bush
Bush may be under pressure, but who could knock him off his perch?
The dawning of this realisation has not made the democrats happy. Far from it. It has made them nervy and testy.

The candidates bicker and jockey for position, aware that both of the last democrats in the White House, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, were certainly not front-runners when the campaigning started. There is all to play for.

Meanwhile the party bigwigs, also suddenly aware that the White House might beckon, moan about the paucity of talent on offer and call for big name figures to come forward.

This is almost certainly why Hillary Clinton's name came back into the frame in recent days.

DEMOCRATIC HOPEFULS
Howard Dean,
former governor of Vermont
Senator John Kerry
of Massachusetts
Senator John Edwards
of North Carolina
Senator Bob Graham
of Florida
Senator Joe Lieberman
of Connecticut
Representative Dick Gephardt
of Missouri
Representative Dennis Kucinich
of Ohio
Carol Moseley Braun,
former Illinois Senator
Al Sharpton,
Civil rights advocate

She has made it pretty clear she is not going to run this time but she is being used as a stick to beat the little guys.

The nightmare for the bigwigs is that a vulnerable president might come up against an even more vulnerable Democratic nominee and win by default.

Now as the campaigning begins in earnest, the spotlight is on the candidates, particularly on two of them.

John Kerry, the senator from Massachusetts and Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont.

Kerry began the campaign as the front-runner, when there was no running to do.

He backed the war in Iraq and he himself fought in Vietnam, so he was considered a safe choice, not vulnerable to Republican charges of lily-liveredness in the face of the war on terrorism.

But Senator Kerry has been wrong-footed by an occurrence he hadn't bargained for.

The war in Iraq was indeed popular in America and opposing it at the time was not a sure fire vote winner. But lo and behold things have changed.

The war is now not nearly as popular as it was and the peace, such as it is, is persuading many Americans to reappraise their appetite for foreign conflict.

Enter stage-left Howard Dean. Governor Dean opposed the war and is free now to blast the President with both barrels and that is what he has been doing and the party love it.

He is now the man to beat, ahead in all the polls for the early primaries and caucuses.

In the frame

The problem with Governor Dean is that while he could win the nomination, he could probably not win the presidency.

He is a northern liberal and not since JFK has a northern liberal made it to the White House for the Democrats.

Dr Howard Dean, current favourite
The Democrats are struggling to find a truly popular candidate
He could make a stab at packaging himself with a southerner, perhaps Wesley Clark, the former supreme commander of Nato as his vice presidential running mate, but it still would not be easy.

So still it looks as if, when the dust settles the Democrats might have to find a compromise.

Step forward the ever youthful looking Dick Gephardt.

Mr Gephardt stood for the nomination back in 1988. After losing he went on to become a senior party figure in Washington and Leader of the party in the House of Representatives.

He also backed the war but he has a radical and, by American standards, left-wing plan to revitalise health care. He can appeal to the grass roots and perhaps also the wider nation.

There are problems though with the Gephardt candidacy.

'Mountain to climb'

He is seen by many as a machine politician, a friend of organised labour, a backroom operator. For the folksy folk who run the Bush campaign he would make a titivating target.

DEMOCRATS TIMETABLE
Six official debates before end of year
Party elections (primaries) between January and March
Democratic Party convention opens in Boston, 26 July
Presidential election begins 2 November 2004
"What about the others?" I hear you cry. Most haven't a hope.

Joe Lieberman, Al Gore's running mate last time round, might still get into gear but so far his campaign has looked becalmed.

Bob Graham from Florida, in theory he could still trouble the scorers, but so far he has not.

Perhaps the debates, starting with the New Mexico one, will energise the whole process.

Perhaps one of those big figures might still come in at the last minute and blow the others away. An interesting political season is certainly on the cards.

Interesting for me and interesting to you if you've read this far, but not apparently interesting to most Americans.

A recent CBS poll suggested two thirds of the American electorate could not name one of the nine Democrats currently running.

There is a mountain to climb and we are still in the foothills.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Matt Frei in New Mexico
"The Democratic field is very crowded and confusing"



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