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Longer primary campaign may help Democrats

Keeps candidates in spotlight

Keeps candidates in spotlight

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Tuesday, February 3: Missouri, Oklahoma, Arizona, Delaware, South Carolina primaries; North Dakota and New Mexico caucuses

Saturday, February 7: Michigan and Washington caucuses

Sunday, February 8: Maine caucuses

Tuesday, February 10: Tennessee primary and Virginia primaries

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- The conventional wisdom stated that the Democrats needed a short, sharp primary campaign with a quick winner emerging to take on President Bush in November's election.

Now, after no decisive result from the first two contests and the possibility of the race going on well into March, some political pundits believe a longer struggle may benefit the party and the eventual nominee.

"As long as the debate within the party stays relatively civil, it's probably good for the Democrats if the campaign goes on for a while," said Mark Rozell, a political scientist at Catholic University.

"It keeps their candidates in the spotlight attacking Bush while the president stays on the sidelines."

Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe deliberately set up the front-loaded primary calendar to produce a quick winner.

The thinking was that choosing a nominee as early as possible in the state-by-state votes would give the party more time to unite, raise money and prepare for battle against Bush.

"As soon as a nominee emerges, he begins to be elevated to a level equal to that of the president. The quicker that happens, the better for Democrats," said Keith Appell, a conservative political consultant.

Prolonged race

But a split verdict in the seven states holding primaries and caucuses next Tuesday, which seems entirely possible, could prolong the race for several weeks more.

The downside of a longer campaign is that the eventual nominee may emerge practically broke, while Bush has already amassed $138 million that he will start spending in earnest as soon as the Democrats have a nominee.

"Bush will be able to go out and define the race on his terms around the country. That will put a cloud on the Democratic nominee that will follow him through the summer," said Scott Reed, who managed Republican Bob Dole's unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1996.

That's exactly what happened to Dole in 1996. He finished the primaries low on cash and then-President Bill Clinton was able to dominate the headlines for the next four months until the summer conventions at which the parties formally nominate their candidate.

But pollster John Zogby said the 2004 race was enabling Democrats to sharpen their message and enthuse core voters, many of whom only three months ago were extremely pessimistic that Bush could be beaten.

Democrats's hopes rise

"Through 2003, anywhere from two-thirds to three-quarters of Democrats were saying in polls that Bush would be re-elected. But only 8 percent of voters in last week's Iowa caucuses and 10 percent who voted in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire said they thought Bush could not be beaten," he said.

Turnout in both Iowa and New Hampshire was considerably higher than four years ago, even though the Democrats had a highly competitive race then between Al Gore and Bill Bradley.

"The voters are forcing the candidates to mature and improve. I'm impressed at the extent to which this electorate is engaged, committed and has demanded more from all the candidates," said David Birdsell, a political scientist at Baruch College in New York.

Zogby and other analysts now believe the November election could be highly competitive, although Bush is still favored to win.

"Right now, we're focused on the nomination process but once the conversation shifts to the real election, Bush's real advantages will become clearer and it will become apparent how difficult this race will be for the Democrats," Rozell said.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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