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A rising (four) star?

National | POLITICS: Labor Day represents the starting gun of Campaign '04-but a late entrant may shake up the moribund Democratic field

Issue: "Pryor commitment," Sept. 13, 2003

Politicians get to make holidays, but they rarely get to take them-especially politicians who want to be president. While most Americans were enjoying a Labor Day free of labor, the nine Democratic presidential candidates were working hard for dollars and votes.

"This is the moment when the American people start to focus on the presidential race," Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich told a crowd of about 5,000 at a Labor Day rally in Des Moines. The next day, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry officially announced his candidacy in South Carolina, an early-voting Southern state.

But with Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses just five months away, most of the Democratic field is focused there. Five of the nine candidates marched in a parade from the capitol building to the state fairgrounds, while Joseph Lieberman, the one-time frontrunner, campaigned on his own in the eastern part of the state.

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"My goal is to exceed expectations," Sen. Lieberman insisted. He'll need to. Al Gore's vice presidential nominee placed fourth in a recent poll of Iowa voters, despite his high name recognition. The surprise leader in that poll: former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who has come out of nowhere to top his better-known rivals.

Dr. Dean now leads in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and his financial advantage is growing, fueled by an unprecedented Internet fundraising drive. When the candidates tally their quarterly totals on Sept. 30, Dr. Dean is expected to top $10.3 million, the most ever for a Democrat in a single quarter.

The Dean machine has some top Democratic strategists worried. He draws his support from the left wing of his party, which tends to help immensely in primaries but hurt in the general election. His opposition to the war in Iraq is especially worrisome, given the public's broad support of President Bush's foreign policy.

It's the foreign-policy chink in Mr. Dean's armor that could lure another Democrat into the field. Wesley Clark, a retired four-star general and former NATO commander, has scheduled a Sept. 19 speech at the University of Iowa where he's expected to make his intentions known.

With 33 years of foreign-policy experience, the telegenic general could gain instant traction and shake up the field. More than any other contender, he has the credentials to challenge the administration's handling of the war on terror, which continues to rank as the leading concern among many voters. In a recent poll, Gen. Clark bested five of the candidates who've been campaigning for months, and two separate "draft Clark" organizations claim they've signed up more than a million volunteers and lined up $1 million in contributions.

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