John Kerry may have been the first senator to throw his hat officially into the presidential-nominating ring, but he is likely to have a tough time rising heads and shoulders above the continuously growing field of Democratic hopefuls.

Kerry of Massachusetts ranked third last month in a Fox poll of Democratic contenders, behind Hillary Clinton of New York, who hasn't expressed an interest in running in 2004, and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who is expected to make his bid official Monday.

The telegenic Vietnam War hero and wealthy three-term senator, who has distinguished himself as much for his social graces as his politically liberal tendencies, will have to vie against better known and more influential lawmakers as well as proving his mettle after years of taking a junior seat to Massachusetts icon Sen. Ted Kennedy.

Joining Kerry in the field of declared hopefuls are Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri and retired Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. Lieberman is going all out to announce his intentions, scheduling a speech at his high school in his hometown of Stamford, Conn., and a visit to an area diner as well as multiple interviews.

Black activist Al Sharpton plans to file papers for a committee on Jan. 21. Others who may jump in the ring include Sens. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Bill Graham of Florida and Joe Biden of Delaware, among others.

"I don’t think there’s going to be anyone who jumps way out," said Dick Bennett, president of the New Hampshire-based American Research Group that conducts the New Hampshire Poll, an indicator of the nation's political swells.

"I don’t think they're well enough known in terms of running for president at the moment," he said.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said voters can expect the field to stratify quickly into three tiers of candidates. Lieberman, Gephardt and Kerry are on the first tier; Edwards, Dean and Graham are second tier; and Sharpton and others are third tier.

"It’s really between the first and second tiers," Sabato said. But whereas Republicans traditionally nominate the next in line, Sabato said, "Frequently, first-tier people aren't nominated, especially in the Democratic Party."

Sabato said that's because of the nature of the Democratic Party.

"Democrats are not hierarchical. They’re anti-establishment and they often favor the underdog or the little dog. So you just never know," Sabato said.

"It’s no accident they’ve had people like Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, even Bill Clinton — these were not the most prominent people in their party, to say the least" yet they still got the Democratic nomination, he added.

But Fox News political analyst Eleanor Clift said Edwards' Southern roots may propel him to the top. The only Democrats to take the helm of the White House in the past 30 years were Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, both Southerners.

Edwards, a first-term trial lawyer worth $14 million, has a short political resume but his youthful charm and smooth talk have raised his profile quickly. Though most analysts agree he has to come up with something more substantive than his commitment "to represent the regular folks," Edwards has managed to stake a claim by saying that local communities need to better prepare citizens for terror warnings. He introduced a bill Thursday to modernize emergency warning systems to give Americans better information about threats of terrorism and natural disasters.

Edwards supported the Iraq resolution and has called for the creation of a separate domestic spy agency. He favors delaying future installments of President Bush's tax cut.

National Review editor Rich Lowry said Edwards wouldn't be the strongest leader because of his slim foreign policy experience but Gephardt, who quit the House Democratic leadership to focus on his campaign for president, has a good chance of getting the nod given his strong support of the war resolution against Iraq and his populist nature.

Gephardt took the lead in supporting Bush's Iraq resolution and pushed congressional support toward its strong, bipartisan passage. He has raised $2.5 million that he can put to his presidential ambition. He also knows how to work his donor connections and has raked in mountains of cash from business and organized labor groups.

The money race is likely to have a big impact on the ability of a candidate to ascend from the pack. It's no secret that often the one with the most cash gets elected. Lawmakers aware of this maxim have come out of the box earlier this election cycle in order to have the most amount of time to raise money.

"There's no question about the fact that the reason they declare so long in advance is, once they start to raise money, they have to be a declared candidate," said Steve Weissman, associate director for policy at the Campaign Finance Institute.

Kerry, who has said he wants middle income tax cuts and has chided the president for his energy and foreign policies, has the money. He transferred $2.5 million of his $8.7 million war chest designated for him to his 2002 re-election bid, much of which went unused. A politician who refuses money from political action committees, he said he also plans to collect donations from a broad base of individual supporters.

Lieberman has name recognition from his vice presidential run with Gore in 2000 and could have access to a huge and wealthy Jewish voter base, though he has offended largely Democratic and deep-pocketed corners in Hollywood with his loud criticism of sex and violence in the entertainment industry.

But Sabato warned against relying solely on the money mantra.

"There are exceptions to every rule," he said.

Weissman agreed.

"I think the judgment here has been that probably some of the candidates that are either declared or potential will drop out, and partly it will depend on money and partly it will depend on how their poll numbers look," Weissman said

In that case, candidates like Howard Dean, who has been a sharp critic of the Bush administration's Iraq war preparation, may appeal strongly to the party's liberal, anti-war base, critical in the primary elections.

Graham, another vocal critic of the administration who voted against the congressional resolution authorizing Bush to use force against Iraq, could sway voters with his record investigating the intelligence agencies that failed to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks. A popular senator from Florida who served eight years as governor there, Graham also represents a state that is expected to be the real battleground in 2004.

But at this early stage, no one can be entirely discounted, said U.S. News & World Report senior writer Michael Barone.

"I think they're all arguably strong competitors. These are all intelligent people that have got serious records in public service," he said.