From my perspective there are two declared and one undeclared candidates who could win in November of 2004- Gephardt, Edwards and Clark. But I think the best way to proceed is to lay out what it will take for a Democratic candidate to win the White House. The secret is in two little words- Reagan Democrats. These are the folks who have determined the president for at least the past 24 years. They're a combination of Democrats, former Democrats and Independents who began voting Republican at the nationl level in 1980, driven largely by national security concerns but also due to economic conditions (remember malaise?).
People in this category tend to be white, working to middle class, non-degreed, and blue collar. Ideologically they tend towards economic populism and social moderation (I hesitate to use the word conservative because of its loaded meaning and association with the Religious Right). These Reagan Democrats voted GOP until 1992, when Bill Clinton was able to lure them back into the Democratic fold, primarily as a result of economic troubles in the early 1990's. However, in 2000, George Bush was able to pull enough of these folks back towards the GOP, driven largley by his personality.
These folks are the key to 2004, as they were in 2000. Al Gore lost moderate, blue collar folks in the South and that torpedoed his candidacy. Despite being from the South, he was viewed with skepticism and as some out of touch elitist from Washington. In spite of his populist message, he never quite connected with enough Reagan Democrats to win the White House (yes, I know he won the popular vote, but if you think this race should have even been CLOSE then you simply do not know your political history).
Now, who is it in this year's field who can appeal to this swing constituency and who cannot. I believe that only Gephardt and Edwards (among the announced candidates) have any realistic shot. I should note that I really only think that Gephardt, Edwards, Kerry, Dean and Clark (if he runs) stand any chance at winning the nomination.
It will be almost too easy for Bush & Co. to paint Kerry and Dean as out of touch, elitist, New England liberals. Although Dean clearly has a moderate record as Governor of Vermont, he has consistently staked out a position on the left side of the primary lot, which will be impossible to moderate once the primaries are over. Besides, Dean's moderation is a mixture of economic conservatism (fiscal hawk) and social liberalism that is exactly the opposite of the Reagan Democrats, not to mention his decision to make his opposition to the Iraq war his campaign's raison d'etre.
The same argument can be made against Kerry, despite his support for the war. He certainly does have foreign policy cred, but there will always be the looming question of whose medals he threw at the Pentagon. And, a quick look at his website will show that he is a classical Northeast liberal who presents just as target rich an envrionment for this Bush team as Michael Dukakis did for the previous Bush. Combine that with his aloofness and his tendency to try to be everything to everyone and Kerry is clearly not the man to beat Bush.
That leaves us with Gephardt and Edwards (I won't touch Clark, really, until he jumps in) and the reasons why they are each electable are based on their appeal to Reagan Democrats. Gepahrdt's appeal is based on his ties to labor and his economic populism. He presents as an economic populist with a bit of social moderation to boot. His support for fair, not free, trade will ring true to the heart and soul of Reagan Dems- the blue collar folks whose jobs have vanished over the past decade. In addition, his Midwestern roots and general likability will play strongly nationwide and will allow him to appeal to both educated upscale Northeast voters and Southern blue collars.
Edwards has a very similar appeal, though not quite as much of an economic populist as Gephardt. His pitch on economic matters is aimed at some of those same populist folks, but with a slightly different twist. Whereas Gephardt borders on protectionist, Edwards is a free trader who is campaigning on the difference between crony capitalism and real capitalism. Edwards also has the same Southern roots that catapulted the last two Democratic presidents into the White House. This is not to be overlooked, because for whatever reason Southern moderates just seem more comfortable voting for one of their own than for a Northerner.
The other quality both Gephardt and Edwards have going for them is their likability and personality. People were turned off by Al Gore and saw him as the kid who sat in the front of the class and tattled on the other kids. He seemed too smarmy and a know it all. Voters do not liked to be spoken down to and I think that Gore suffered for his speaking style. As I have noted elsewhere, Gephardt possesses a certain masculine charm- he seems like a guy you could play golf with or have a beer with at the local pub. Edwards is a little bit more smooth, but has a very eloquent speaking style (MTP appearance aside) that connects well with voters. In other words, both can beat Bush in the personality war.
So, if it is electablilty that we care about- and boy, do I hope so- then really we have two (maybe three) choices. Of the current crop of hopefuls, only Gephardt and Edwards can win because they connect with the Reagan Democrats who came home to elect Clinton twice. These same people will put either Gephardt or Edwards in the White House next November.