WASHINGTON – The Democratic field for the White House swelled to four Thursday as Sen. John Edwards announced his candidacy for president in 2004 and supporters of Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt announced formation of a presidential exploratory committee in the coming days.
The field is likely to grow to a half dozen or more in the next week or so — almost two years before the 2004 election.
Edwards, 49, announced Thursday he was entering the race for president, saying, "I want to be a champion for the people I have fought for all my life — regular people." He joined Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in the fast-growing Democratic field. Supporters of the 61-year-old Gephardt put out a statement late Thursday saying a reception to benefit his exploratory committee would be held Jan. 22.
Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman is also expected to join the field soon. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle is strongly leaning toward a run and probably will announce his decision by mid-January, associates say. And the Rev. Al Sharpton plans to file papers for an exploratory committee on Jan. 21, aides say.
Sen. Bob Graham of Florida is expected to announce his intentions later this month. Delaware Sen. Joe Biden and Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd are considering bids, too. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark of Little Rock, Ark., has also been mentioned as a possible candidate.
The Democrats in the field will compete for a chance in the 2004 elections to face President Bush, whose popularity has been high in the 16 months since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But the Bush administration faces an uncertain economy and growing international problems.
Bush said Thursday he is not paying attention to the growing field of Democrats jockeying for the right to challenge him. He is too busy to pay any mind to "a lot of verbiage and a lot of noise and a lot of posturing and a lot of elbowing" on the Democratic side, he told reporters after a tour of his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
"One of these days, somebody will emerge, and we'll tee it up, and see who the American people want to lead," Bush said. "And until that happens, I'm going to be doing my job."
In the meantime, Democrats are moving quickly to prepare for a primary season that won't start until early next year.
Outside his home in Raleigh, Edwards talked about his working-class roots — his father was a textile mill supervisor and his mother's last job was at a post office — and how he became the first in his family to graduate from college.
Edwards is a multimillionaire trial lawyer who had never run for office before winning his Senate job 1998. He has earned at least $152 million in civil judgments for clients and a fortune for himself, estimated at $14 million during the Senate campaign.
"If the American people want a lifelong politician in the White House, that's not me. They'll have a group of people to choose from if that's what they want," he said. "If they want instead somebody who is closer to them, more connected to them and spent his entire life fighting for them and comes from them, that is me."
"The president has a different kind of administration that is run to a large extent by insiders and for insiders," Edwards said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "We need to give the American people that choice."
Though he has little experience on the national stage, Edwards said, "I'm more than happy to be judged on the basis of my ideas."
Candidates have to register a committee with the Federal Election Commission once they exceed $5,000 in financial activity for a given office such as president. Money raised from individuals after Jan. 1 of this year is eligible for federal matching funds — dollar for dollar up to $250 per contribution — that would be paid to the campaigns beginning Jan. 1, 2004, said Ian Stirton, an FEC spokesman.
"I expect several more people to get into the race and I look forward to it," Massachusetts Sen. Kerry said after attending the inauguration of the state's new Republican governor, Mitt Romney. "I think it's an opportunity for the country to test leaders and test their ideas."
Florida Sen. Graham was getting a chance to connect with Iowa football fans by refereeing — as a member of the sidelines crew — at the Orange Bowl Thursday night where the Hawkeyes were playing Southern Cal. Graham often has taken on unusual jobs in a series of "workdays" he has held throughout his political career.
Gephardt was vacationing on the South Carolina coast.
In Iowa, site of the Democrats' first 2004 presidential contest, Edwards, Dean and Gephardt have made an impression with their early work, though party activists say the state still is open.
And in South Carolina, which holds a primary a week after New Hampshire, Edwards would seem to have an advantage, being born in upstate South Carolina and raised in North Carolina.
In New Hampshire, site of the nation's first presidential primary, Kerry has an early advantage because he is from neighboring Massachusetts. But that could add a risk, too, by raising expectations.