WASHINGTON (Reuters) - While the early favorites in the 2008 presidential race fight for dollars and support, the immediate challenge for a crowded band of lesser known candidates is political survival.
A fast-starting White House race dominated by a cast of political heavyweights already has knocked out two Democratic contenders and left a handful of hopefuls in each party scrambling to escape the bottom of the pack and climb into the top ranks.
But emulating the rise of past political phenoms like former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who emerged from nowhere to lead the 2004 Democratic presidential pack before flaming out, could be tough this year with so many big names.
The early attention showered on Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards, and Republicans Rudolph Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney, leaves little room for other candidates in either party.
“It’s much harder for a second-tier candidate to emerge when the top tier is so crowded,” said Republican consultant Dan Schnur, a McCain aide in 2000 who is unaffiliated in 2008.
“This year you have three solid top-tier candidates in both parties,” he said. “Even if one of them falters, it’s still an uphill fight for someone else to ascend to that level.”
Two Democrats, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, barely started their campaigns before dropping out when they realized they could not compete for money or attention in the crowded field.
The longshots this year include current and former governors as well as congressional veterans who so far attract low single-digit support in polls, small campaign crowds, sporadic press coverage and an uphill fight to raise money.
“A lot of them are first-tier quality candidates, but what they lack is a compelling message,” said Democratic consultant Doug Schoen, a White House pollster under former President Bill Clinton. “Unless there are some new ideas put forward, it’s hard to see how they break through.”
With the first nominating contest in Iowa more than 10 months away, the contenders say there is still time.
“I realize I’m running behind and that other people are better known,” Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, told Reuters recently. “There is a huge amount of time for me to make my case and try to be heard.”
Other Democratic longshots looking to buck the odds are New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel.
The Republicans include former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, former Virginia Gov. James Gilmore, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and Reps. Duncan Hunter of California and Tom Tancredo of Colorado.
They hope to be in position to move up when some of the early high-flying candidates take their inevitable fall.
“Someone is going to fall out of that top tier early. In D.C. they love to run you up the flagpole so they can let go of the rope and watch you splat,” said Democratic consultant Dane Strother.
Among Democrats, Dodd and Biden have substantial Washington experience and Kucinich has helped lead opposition to the Iraq war. Richardson, a Hispanic, is the last remaining governor and a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
“Richardson has the best resume in the field. I think he is right there and nobody has figured it out yet,” said Strother, who is not affiliated with a 2008 candidate. “He has a lane into the top tier.”
For Republicans, many influential conservatives are still looking for a candidate and have qualms about McCain, Giuliani and Romney, leaving a potential opening.
“There is a very significant opportunity on the Republican side for a fourth top tier candidate to emerge,” Schnur said. “It could be Gilmore, possibly, or maybe Huckabee. Beyond that, it’s hard to see who that person is.”