WASHINGTON – Carol Moseley Braun will share a stage with eight Democrats running for president this weekend in the party's first debate, but she has yet to act like a candidate.
The former Illinois senator is not making regular trips to early primary states. She raised just $72,450 in the first three months of this year, less than any of her rivals. And she has not hired a campaign team, although she says she is beginning to assemble a staff. Which begs the question - why is she in the race?
Interviews with more than a dozen people who know Braun and have followed her career as she rose to become the only black woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate, then fall in defeat after one term offer many theories.
Some say she is determined to clear her name from allegations of misconduct that tainted her Senate term.
"I think in many ways she still feels that the record has vindicated her, but the public and the press have not," said Eric Adelstein, a Chicago media consultant who worked on her 1998 campaign. "I think that by remaining in the limelight, she wants to set the record straight."
Others say she wants to be a player in national politics again.
"If a Democrat wins the White House, she could very well be offered a new position in the administration," said former Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, who served with Braun and donated $500 to her presidential campaign. "She can lecture at colleges and universities. She strengthens her voice in the nation though this process."
Braun says she is running to win and finds the questions about her viability insulting. She says it takes time to build a campaign because she's been out of politics for so long.
"Nobody has ever expected me to be able to get elected to anything," she said. "For one thing, I'm black, I'm a woman and I'm out of the working class. So the notion that somebody who comes out of my background would have something to say about the leadership of this country is challenging to some people."
When Braun and her supporters are asked what she brings to the race, they repeatedly refer to her experience as a woman, a mother and a minority bringing a fresh a point of view to the male-dominated field. But Braun bristles at the suggestion that she is waging a symbolic campaign.
"I don't do this just to make a statement or make a point. I do this to get elected," she said.
People have been writing Braun off since she entered politics. She overcame opposition from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's powerful political machine to win a seat in the state legislature and an election for Cook County Recorder of Deeds.
She took Democratic Sen. Alan Dixon on in a seemingly unwinnable primary challenge, indignant over his vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas despite allegations that he sexually harassed a young subordinate,
Braun ran a low-budget campaign portraying herself as a working mother trying to earn the seat while her millionaire opponents were trying to buy it.
Her victory made her a national inspiration, and millions in donations poured to finance her eventual victory. Betty-Ann Moore, a former Lake County Democratic Party chairwoman, said Braun was a special heroine to women, even Republicans who were excited about her political talent.
But Moore said those supporters were left bitterly disappointed with the scandals that tainted Braun's service and eventually cost her the Senate seat, including allegations that she misused campaign funds and exercised poor judgment in visiting Nigeria's brutal former dictator Sani Abacha.
"There were a number of us who were taken aback by her, let's say, courage in running for the president when she completely muddled her Senate service and campaign," Moore said.
Others are excited to see Braun enter public life again. Lee Betterman, former president of the Illinois Education Association, said she's willing to do whatever Braun asks to help her campaign. She says she's not sure Braun has a chance to win because people spend too much time dwelling on her errors than her talents.
"They were personal mistakes, not her job in the Senate," Betterman said. "I do believe that women are held at a different standard on these. Men have done the same type of thing and not gotten in trouble for it."