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WASHINGTON — The dust has settled from the midterm elections. President George W. Bush, enjoying his newfound political power, is orchestrating pressure on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The Senate is making more short-term history with its two independent senators, with no party in the majority and an artificial air of comity. The House is up and ready — both sides reorganized and ready to begin their battles anew.

The political gossip has swung quickly from Congress to the future of the Democratic Party and the presidential race: Specifically, who will be the Democratic nominee for president? It did not take long for people to notice that the Democrats lacked a cohesive message during the recent election campaign and that they really have not defended well against the Bush presidential initiatives since the war on terrorism began last year. Congressional leaders decided not to fight and not to switch, and the voters decided not to support them. The search for a messiah has started, but no one is in sight.

While the 2004 presidential campaign has effectively begun, the Republican race is already over. Bush announced last week that he is happy and content with his vice president and wants Dick Cheney to be his running mate again next year. That was the only mystery in the GOP race. That does not mean that there will be no nominating campaign, primary elections or convention. On the contrary, the Bush-Cheney ticket is gearing up to spend a record-breaking $200 million in preconvention campaigning — again declining federal matching funds — to position their candidacy for the general election against whoever weaves their way through the Democratic nominating process.

The Democratic nominating process has begun as well, with fundraising and campaigning across the nation for the primaries and caucuses that will begin in January 2004.

Not only is the result not pre-ordained, but the full field of contestants is not even settled. For example, the “big guy” — former Vice President Al Gore — is a big question mark. Considered the candidate to beat in the nominating race for 2004, Gore is still dancing. He has not said “yes” or “no.” In a series of recent interviews, he has sort of said that he would say something soon. That is helpful, but not as definitive as is needed to allow the race to take on some definition.

What happens if Gore runs? His name recognition and other remnants from the past could give him great advantages in a quick-hitting race — and that is exactly what the 2004 Democratic nominating process will be. It will be a two-month flash of primaries — too little time for an unknown to emerge. The name of the game will be name recognition, and Gore will have the advantage.

There will be other candidates, of course. The Senate will be well represented, as usual. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina are in the mix for sure, and there are a couple of others who might be persuaded, namely, Joe Biden of Delaware and Chris Dodd of Connecticut. Joseph Lieberman, Gore’s running mate from 2000, may run if Gore does not.

Congressman Richard Gephardt of Missouri, who retired as the Democratic leader of the House of Representatives last week, will toss his hat in the presidential ring shortly after the first of the year. He ran once before, in 1988, and got off to fast start by winning the Iowa caucuses. There will also be at least one governor, Howard Dean of Vermont, and maybe Gray Davis of California as well.

In the wake of the midterm elections, last week Congress picked new leaders. Republican Rep. Richard Armey retired from Congress and went home to Texas after a quarter century of making a difference in national economic policy. Gephardt was re-elected to the House, but decided not to stand again for leader of the Democratic Caucus after being in charge for 14 years. He is expected to seek new challenges in the new year — including the announced bid for the presidency.

In the Senate, the Republicans kept Trent Lott as their leader, and Tom Daschle will remain the Democratic leader. Mitch McConnell is the new assistant leader of the Republicans, while the Democrats kept their team intact.

In the House, the leaders were selected this week in races that were relatively mild, as congressional elections go. Texan Tom DeLay was elected Republican leader, after serving these past eight years as the assistant leader. California Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi was elected Democratic leader.

The two could not be more polar opposites. Their districts are as politically asymmetrical as any two in the nation. The liberal attitudes of San Francisco are well known, and Pelosi has voted to support her district. DeLay hails from Sugar Land, Texas, which does not support gay marriages, abortion on demand and many other social concepts that are acceptable to the people by the bay.

But the two have a lot in common. They are creative, aggressive, and they push their colleagues to political action. They are tough competitors, and they intend to do what they can to win elections. In short, they are well matched.

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