WASHINGTON - When they crafted the 2004 primary calendar, Democratic leaders hoped for a quick-ending nomination race. But even though Sen. John Kerry has emerged as a clear front-runner, some Democrats don't want their presidential contest to end.
For a variety of reasons, Democrats seem to have found a sweet spot. Their party is unusually unified, mudslinging between the candidates has been kept to a minimum, and polls show Bush losing to a Democrat in the fall.
The Bush-bashing Democratic race "is dominating political coverage and is on the network news every night," said David Plouffe, who was a top adviser to Rep. Richard A. Gephardt's presidential campaign.
"The arguments against Bush are punching through, and I think that's the reason the [poll] numbers have turned so dramatically. ... I don't think the party suffers by having a couple more weeks of a contested nomination fight," Plouffe said.
Anita Dunn, a Democratic consultant and senior adviser in Bill Bradley's 2000 presidential campaign, said that "whenever the Democratic race has gotten the most attention in the last year and a half has been the time when the president's numbers tend to go down, and I don't think it's a coincidence. ... Once we have a nominee and there's not a weekly contest and an element of suspense and excitement, it will be hard to keep people engaged."
Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe was the architect of the tightly packed primary schedule. The idea was to select a nominee swiftly, to minimize damage from party infighting and leave plenty of time for unifying behind the winner and taking the fight to President Bush.
McAuliffe wants the race to continue through March 9. By that point, most of the states and the vast majority of voters will have had a chance to participate.
Andrew Kohut, a pollster who heads the independent Pew Research Center, said there is no way to know how much the attacks on Bush's agenda by Democratic candidates might be eroding public support for the president's re-election.
'Bad time for Bush'
"This has been a pretty bad time for Bush, with the revelations about weapons of mass destruction [not being found in Iraq], rising concerns about deficits, and smaller [than expected] numbers of jobs being created," Kohut said. "But certainly, the nonstop attacks on Bush by four or five Democratic candidates, without Bush being able to use the bully pulpit to respond, has put him at a disadvantage."
In an apparent attempt to grab the public's attention, Bush will make a rare appearance this week on a Sunday talk show, NBC's Meet the Press.
Other presidential candidates who went on to win in November have found themselves behind in the polls at some point in the election year, including Ronald Reagan in 1984 and George H.W. Bush in 1988.
But he added that "the way the Democrats are handling themselves in the race is not a negative for their party. Edwards' positive campaign is dominating the race with Kerry. There's no ugly mud being thrown. ... I don't think that hurts Kerry in the long run, because he's developing every day as a better candidate."
From Kerry's standpoint, the current contest - in which several candidates are splitting the rest of the vote - poses less of a threat than a head-to-head showdown would. But Democratic consultant John Russonello says that, "for the nominee, it's better for the race to be over early. ... The time you get to introduce yourself to the country is usually after you've locked up the nomination and before the convention."
Kerry's good luck
At the same time, he added, Kerry "is having astonishing luck. He's collecting delegates. He's winning states, and he hasn't had anyone really rip into him. That's very good for the party. It hasn't happened in the past. It allows him to start introducing himself without having to defend himself."
Election-day surveys of voters in the first nine states that cast presidential ballots have confirmed the determination of many Democrats to find the candidate best able to unseat Bush. Kerry has benefited the most from this dynamic, exit polls have shown.
There has also been a surprising absence of divisions within the party, along lines of race, gender or issues. Roughly four of five Democratic voters in Tuesday's primaries said they would be satisfied if Kerry were the nominee, whether they voted for him or not, the exit polls indicated.
"You can scratch a [supporter] of any one of these Democratic candidates, and they'll essentially say, 'I'm going to rally around [whoever wins the nomination], because the differences among these candidates is so small," said Curtis Gans, an independent analyst. "It's working to the Democrats' advantage."
Voter turnout has been above average and set records in New Hampshire and other states. That's one reason party officials would like to see the contest continue, at least through March 2, the largest primary day of the year, when Democrats in 10 states, including Maryland, will vote.
Bush and his strategists, meantime, are waiting eagerly for the Democrats to pick his opponent. The president is sitting on more than $100 million that he must spend before the start of the fall campaign. He is likely to start using that money, beginning next month, to run ads in key states attacking the likely Democratic nominee, Republicans say.
That Democrat, whoever it turns out to be, isn't likely to come close to matching Bush's bankroll. That's another reason why Democrats want the valuable news coverage from a contested race for another month. By then, primaries will have taken place in many of the largest states, including California, New York, Ohio and Florida.
It also means more long days on the road for road-weary candidates, their vocal chords stripped raw by an unforgiving primary schedule. Several, including Kerry and former Gov. Howard Dean, have had nasty coughs for weeks.
The longer the race goes on, Kerry, who spent a rare day at home yesterday with no public events, faces maladies unique to a front-runner.
"It will give the Bush people time to define John Kerry," Dole said Tuesday night on CNN. "That's what happened to me in '96. Bill Clinton ... defined me as a bad guy. ... That's the danger of having these primaries drag on and on and on, because it gives the opposition, whichever party, that opportunity to go out an define you in a way that people [aren't] attracted to you."