To gain the honor of potentially getting smashed by George W. Bush in the November 2004 presidential election, some of the Democratic challengers may have to implement some unique strategic moves to earn their party's nomination.
Bush's only potential Achilles heel remains the economy. That possibility has political pundits wondering whether they can go ahead and script a Bush post-war nosedive -- a la Bush senior in 1992 -- or if the president's re-election campaign will more closely resemble the GOP landslides of Nixon in '72 and Reagan in '84.
The kickoff Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina over the weekend came at an opportune time. Our latest InsiderAdvantage national survey of the race shows President Bush maintaining a 16-point lead over all announced Democratic challengers combined, with nearly a quarter of the respondents saying they are undecided. After Saturday's debate, I have serious doubts that any Democrat can overcome the nation's strong liking for Bush.
Be that as it may, the 4,500 polling interviews we conducted over the past four months reveal a few emerging trends among the hopefuls from the opposition party. The cumulative national poll, with a margin of error of less than 3 percent, shows Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman consistently leading the pack among respondents that support a Democratic challenger. Lieberman enjoys 20 percent support, with Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry tied at 12 percent each. All other candidates, including the "fresh new face" of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, and Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, are well below 10 percent each.
The South Carolina debate field got mixed reviews. No candidate stood out, although the clashes between Kerry and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean received the most media ink.
Given the likely order of next year's primaries and caucuses, cold (though perhaps unconventional) logic suggests that some of the Democratic field might be wise to sit out some of the early contests. That strategy could allow them to be on firmer footing when the larger bloc of delegates goes up for grabs in bigger states.
Gephardt -- a former winner of the Iowa caucuses -- could take off with an early win there or in another early round contest. If he doesn't, he may be forced to somehow fashion himself as the "viable moderate" in the South Carolina primary, which follows the New Hampshire primary by one week.