DES MOINES, Iowa – Seeking the presidency is harder the second time around. As the race for 2008 builds, Democratic Sen. John Kerry has left little doubt about his intentions to try again after his narrow loss to President Bush in 2004. He isn't the only also-ran considering another marathon.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has the look of a White House hopeful. Three Democrats — 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark and Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware — sound a lot like presidential candidates; Al Gore, the Democrats' nominee in 2000, says he has all but ruled out running for president in 2008.
Kerry faces a challenge of major proportions, convincing Democratic activists that a candidate who just lost an election can still carry his party's White House hopes.
"I think the Democratic Party, unlike the Republican Party, has had a historic reluctance to give people a second chance," said Democratic activist Jerry Crawford, a Des Moines lawyer who was chairman of Kerry's 2004 campaign in Iowa.
It's rare when Democrats give the nomination to a candidate who just failed.
Adlai Stevenson got a second chance against President Eisenhower in 1956, but many suspect that Democrats were pessimistic about the odds of unseating a popular president. Their doubts were realized when Stevenson lost again.
Republicans, on the other hand, are more willing to give their nominees another try. Richard M. Nixon lost the presidency in 1960 and won the White House in 1968. Bob Dole sought his party's nomination in 1980 and 1988. He secured the GOP nod in 1996 but lost the general election to President Clinton.
Dole said the climb gets steeper on the next try.
"I think the advantage is the first time you are fresh and new to a lot of people and they haven't formed a judgment about you," the former Kansas senator said. "The second time around, some people might say he's had his chance, we need a new face."
Kerry's allies acknowledge the struggle but are unwilling to give up the cause.
"Historically, the Democratic Party has tended to shoot its wounded," said former New Hampshire Democratic Chairman Joe Keefe. "John Kerry has done everything within his power to rewrite that chapter."
The Massachusetts senator has raised nearly $9 million for candidates and the party and has campaigned actively across the country.
In statements the party's liberal base has welcomed, Kerry has said he was wrong to vote for the Iraq war resolution in 2002 and has called for an end to the conflict.
The Vietnam War veteran also has come out in favor of a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. But he got precious little support, even among fellow Democrats, in recent Senate debate.
The amendment failed 86-13 and Kerry's push for the measure frustrated some in the party leadership.
Kerry has made three trips to Iowa. The state's caucuses launch the nominating season and Kerry's surprising victory in January 2004 propelled him to the nomination.
Attitudes have changed among state Democrats, with a recent Des Moines Register poll putting Kerry a distant third behind 2004 running mate Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Democratic consultant and Kerry ally Jenny Backus said Kerry must overcome "the Democratic curse" of dismissing losing candidates, no matter how well they perform.
"He has grown from the devastation of the last election," said former Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia. "A lot of people who are reacting to Kerry are reacting to the Kerry of '04."
Kerry, who raised $233 million as a presidential candidate, had about $15 million left after the November 2004 election. That was a sore point with many Democrats who questioned why he did not spend it all to unseat Bush.
Kerry gave about $3 million of that money to various Democratic committees and spent about $2 million to buy the e-mail donor list from his campaign. After covering various campaign debts, he had millions left and has been adding to his accounts since then.
As Kerry moves to involve himself in the next campaign, some point to the flaws in his last run as evidence he shouldn't be the standard bearer again.
"I think he has to make an argument that he could do better than he did in 2004," said Democratic strategist Jeff Link, who is consulting with the political action committee of Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a potential Kerry rival.
"We had an unpopular president who had launched an unpopular war and Democrats were as motivated as I've ever seen them, but he couldn't close the sale. I think that's going to give a lot of Democrats pause," Link said.
John Norris, who managed Kerry's campaign in Iowa and ran his field operations in the general election, said candidates learn valuable lessons in a national campaign that could be put to use in a second bid. Sadly, he said, voters do not see it that way.
"That sentiment you talked about is really strong out there," Norris said. "You know, 'He's had his chance.' I think that's shortsighted."
Link said there is an inherent reluctance to give a candidate a second chance, regardless of how well they performed. He worked for Gore during the disputed 2000 election.
"I was a very strong supporter of Al Gore and when he sort of put his toes in the water in 2004 he didn't find the support I think he had hoped for," Link said. "And he had arguably won the 2000 election."
Veteran Democratic strategist Ron Parker said it isn't a very complicated set of dynamics.
"For most folks, Kerry's selling point was less about ideology, about experience, it was the fact that he was the most electable candidate," Parker said. "It turns out that wasn't true and that opens the door for somebody new in 2008."
Crawford, a close ally of Bill Clinton, said electability is critical to the Democrats.
"We, as a party, are going to get to January of 2008 and take a look at the national landscape. And if it looks like Hillary Clinton can win a general election, the great possibility is she will be our nominee," Crawford said. "If we get to January of 2008 and it looks like she can't win a general election, then it's open season and we'll go from there."