WASHINGTON – Congressional elections this year may be first on the political calendar, but Washington scorekeepers are already looking beyond the mid-term election to the next presidential vote and some familiar names are popping up.
First on the list is former Vice President Al Gore, who has told Democrats that he is ready to re-emerge and has already begun the process of positioning himself for a third try for the White House.
"That's the word that I get from people who are going to be asked to give and raise money for Al Gore, and he's decided that in fact, he does want to try it again, that he wants the Democratic nomination and that money will be raised for that effort," said Fortune Magazine Washington editor Jeff Birnbaum.
Top Democratic strategists said Gore was reviewing possible dates for speaking appearances in Iowa and New Hampshire and has had conversations with activists in the key early primary states. Gore intended to come out with an announcement last year but the war against terrorism set back his calendar.
Birnbaum, who broke the story, told Fox News that Gore may decide to team up again with Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, currently chairman of the House Government Affairs committee, and Gore's running mate in 2000 with whom he won the popular vote.
Lieberman has said if Gore runs then he will not run for president, but he has been making calls to line up support should Gore change his mind.
The decision could put a wrinkle in the plans of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. Daschle has not made public any intentions yet, but has let several prominent fundraisers, activists, consultants and strategists in Washington, D.C., and around the country know that he is interested in exploring a candidacy further.
Daschle's speech Friday to a group of business leaders had pundits suggesting that it was his opening salvo for the 2004 race.
"It's the first speech of the 2004 presidential campaign, I believe," said The Weekly Standard's publisher William Kristol.
Two prominent Democratic activists who work closely with Daschle said the majority leader is concentrating on legislative challenges and the 2002 campaign "because taking care of the present is the best way to position for the future."
Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina has also taken several major steps in recent weeks. Most notably, Edwards quietly hired prominent and influential Democratic presidential strategist Steve Jarding in December. Jarding managed Virginia Gov.-elect Mark Warner's successful Democratic gubernatorial campaign.
Previously, Jarding was a prominent fixture in the Senate and presidential campaigns of Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb. Jarding has also run campaigns for Daschle and Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., and held top positions in the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is tasked with electing Democrats to the Senate.
A well-placed source close to Edwards and Jarding said, "These two guys are not joining forces to concentrate on Edwards' North Carolina re-election. This is national."
In mid-December, Edwards visited Iowa, home of the first presidential caucus, where he attended an annual conference of some 500 labor leaders. That was Edwards's second visit to Iowa in 2000.
Edwards has already reached out to activists in New Hampshire, home of the first primary, and discussed ways of starting a campaign organization. Sources close to Edwards said similar calls were being made to South Carolina, which traditionally hosts the first primary in the Southern United States.
Other potential 2004 Democratic presidential candidates who have sounded out activists in New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina for potential campaign support include John Kerry, D-Mass., and California Gov. Gray Davis.
"I think John Kerry, the senator from Massachusetts, has a very good start. He has, I think I last saw, over $6 million in the bank, and raising more," said Birnbaum. "Also, Gray Davis, the governor of California, has tens of millions of dollars."
House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., who visited Iowa and New Hampshire repeatedly to campaign for 2002 House candidates, has told associates that he is seriously considering a bid, and that the best way to lay the groundwork for a White House run is for him to help Democrats win back the House majority.
Six seats separate control of the House. All 435 House members come up for re-election in Nov. 2002.