Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, a centrist Democrat who had prepared for years to seek the presidency, announced Saturday that he had decided not to run -- underscoring how daunting it is to build support in the shadow of the celebrity candidates who dominate both parties.
Bayh had announced two weeks ago that he was establishing a committee to explore a presidential bid. But in a statement issued Saturday, he indicated that it would be hard to compete with Hillary Rodham Clinton's huge fundraising machinery and Barack Obama's star power if both senators decided to run.
"The odds were always going to be very long for a relatively unknown candidate like myself, a little bit like David and Goliath," Bayh said. "And whether there were too many Goliaths or whether I'm just not the right David, the fact remains that at the end of the day, I concluded that due to circumstances beyond our control the odds were longer than I felt I could responsibly pursue."
Bayh got a leg up this fall when former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, another moderate Democrat, decided not to run for president. But Bayh's struggle for traction also illustrates the challenge he would have faced running in the liberal-leaning Democratic Party as a moderate without a passion-inspiring message.
"An extra dimension of charisma and leadership qualities are hotly in demand at this time," said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "The idea of a candidate filling the niche of centrism is not a bankable proposition in the Democratic nominating process. There has to be a passion."
Bayh was one of many potential White House contenders in both parties who have been trying to find ways to capture public attention and scout for political niches in what is likely to be an unusually crowded candidate field.
Republicans have their own Goliaths to contend with. Sen. John McCain of Arizona is considered a formidable front-runner because of his war-hero status and national political network. Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani enjoys broad popularity and fame because of his leadership role after the Sept. 11 attacks.
But there is still spirited competition in both parties among second-tier candidates who are seeking enough money, staff and credibility to become leading alternatives if the top-tier candidates stumble.
"The average person doesn't know who I am," Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) said. But he is undeterred in seeking support for a presidential bid. "People are shopping."
The lesser-known candidates have been creative in trying to win a place in the public eye.
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a favorite of social conservatives, spent a night this month in the Louisiana State Penitentiary to highlight his support for faith-based programs aimed at helping prisoners build new lives. The gambit generated a small flurry of news stories.
A week earlier, Brownback drew modest attention in announcing he was withdrawing personal investments from companies that do business with Sudan, a protest against human rights abuses in the Darfur region.
Book tour circuit
Other likely candidates are writing books, which inevitably lead to publicity tours and, often, media attention. Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, a Democrat who ran in 2004 and may enter the field again, sold the rights last month to a memoir to be published next fall.
Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2004, has been traveling the country to promote "Home: The Blueprints of Our Lives," his look at the childhood homes of actors, athletes and others. The book recently landed him an appearance on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart."
Clinton and McCain have built extensive political networks, but other candidates may find a counterweight by winning favor with major interest groups that have significant fundraising machinery and get-out-the-vote apparatus.
Edwards, for example, has spent much time expanding his ties to organized labor, touring the country in support of hotel workers seeking improved wages. He also has campaigned for minimum-wage ballot initiatives in six states -- including Nevada, which holds early presidential caucuses, and swing states such as Ohio and Missouri. The AFL-CIO recently recognized his help by giving him a workers-rights award named for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.).
Edwards' efforts may help position him as a liberal alternative to Clinton and could give him access to important endorsements and big-labor field troops.
On the Republican side, outgoing Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has been trying to position himself as a conservative alternative to McCain. He has begun courting evangelical religious leaders in a series of private meetings at his home and around the country.
Also eyeing the vacuum on the right is Brownback. When another conservative favorite, Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, recently announced he was not going to run for president, Brownback quickly moved to contact Frist's donors.
The fact that many lesser-known politicians are considering a run is a sign of just how uncertain the front-runners' status is. McCain and Giuliani face obstacles within the GOP because they have antagonized some social conservatives. Clinton of New York is dogged by concern that she is too polarizing a figure to win the general election. Illinois' Obama is a novice as a national officeholder.
"It is anything but a forgone conclusion that the Democratic nominee is going to be Clinton or Obama," said Jim Jordan, a veteran Democratic strategist. "We know voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are discriminating, late deciders and tire kickers who almost always deliver surprises."
Years of preparation
Bayh had been preparing for a presidential bid since the moment Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) lost the 2004 election. The next day, longtime Bayh advisor Anita Dunn was on the phone recruiting potential campaign operatives. Bayh, meanwhile, began pitching himself to donors and activists as a moderate Democrat with proven ability to win in a red state -- he was elected governor of Indiana twice by wide margins.
He amassed more than $10.5 million in his Senate campaign account, which he could have used for a presidential bid.
But Bayh, 50, the son of former Sen. Birch Bayh, got a sobering dose of political reality last weekend when he visited the early-primary state of New Hampshire. He drew a tiny fraction of the thousands who turned out for Obama's maiden visit the same day.
Bayh's withdrawal from the field increases competition among other lesser-known Democrats seeking to position themselves as a leading alternative to Clinton. Among the announced Democratic candidates are Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich. Edwards is expected to join them soon, and Dodd says he will decide over the holidays whether to launch a formal run. Kerry and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware are also considering a bid.
"There's obviously room to the right of both Clinton and Obama, but who that will be isn't clear," Jordan said. "Today is a good day for everyone else in the field because Sen. Bayh would have been a formidable candidate."