America - Andrew Stephen identifies a Democratic hope

Right now, George Bush dwarfs all potential Democratic opponents for 2004. But note one name: Senato

You can already imagine the scene: a strong President George W Bush, embodying the virtues of leadership and strength, holding his summer 2004 convention against the smouldering background of the twin towers in New York City. "We believe New York will provide an outstanding backdrop to showcase our candidate and our party," says Mark Racicot, the Republican National Committee's chairman.

By Tuesday morning, there were seven dwarfs lined up to take on Bush in 2004. And then there were six, when the Senate Democratic leader, Tom Daschle, pulled out; so far, four have definitely announced their intention to run, with three more (including Al Gore's running mate, Joe Lieberman) expected to announce their intention any day. But one of these dwarfs, save some sensation happening like Gore or Hillary Clinton being called in to rescue the party, will be the Democratic opponent against George Bush in 2004. And with mounting economic chaos and the possibility of military mayhem, who is to say he doesn't have a chance?

None of the six is well known to the public, with the 61-year-old Dick Gephardt perhaps most familiar. But although Congressmen and Senators insist on running, by far the best chances lie with governors; not since Warren Harding in 1920 and JFK in 1960 have candidates been elected to the presidency direct from Congress. That has not stopped all but one candidate - Howard Dean, the outgoing governor of Vermont - coming from the House or Senate this time; perhaps the brightest hope (and repeatedly described as a "fresh face") is Senator John Edwards, 49, of North Carolina.

Edwards was elected to his seat only in 1998, having made a $14m fortune as a highly successful defence lawyer; it is a measure of Bush's concern that the only candidate he has personally attacked (via the subject of defence lawyers) is Edwards. His father was a textile mill supervisor and Edwards is proud that he was the first in his family to go to college. "I want", he says, " to be a champion for all the people I have fought for in my life - regular people." It is a populist theme successfully adopted by Bill Clinton and less so by Al Gore: the people versus the rich and privileged.

"Whatever else happens, we'll have 12 months and at least six candidates with which to spell out our policy disagreements with Bush," says Steve Ricchetti, deputy chief of staff in Clinton's White House. The six candidates are privately contemptuous of Bush. They see him warmongering and ignoring the economy. And they remember what happened in 1992, when major Democratic players refused to take on Bush Sr and left the field clear for a then minor figure like Bill Clinton.

Running in 2003 is more complicated than it might appear. The goal for this year is to assemble a management team, nurture grass-roots contacts and garner at least $30m for the frantic, dizzying merry-go-round of the caucuses and primaries. Edwards, with his private fortune, is financially best placed of the candidates - though the veteran Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts is married to a Heinz heiress.

Edwards is already well-prepared for the onslaught of attacks on having been a successful lawyer: "I spent most of my adult life representing kids and families against very powerful opponents, usually big insurance companies. And my job was to give them a fair shake . . . they needed somebody to be their fighter, to be their champion . . . it's exactly the same thing I've tried to do since I've been in the Senate, and it's exactly the same thing I'll do if I'm in the White House."

Edwards's voting record is a careful blending of north and south: Yes to criminal background checks on those who seek to purchase guns at gun shows, No to confirmation of John Ashcroft as Bush's attorney-general, No to allowing oil and gas drilling on the coastal plane of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and (possibly crucially) Yes to authorising Bush to use force against Iraq. His ideal running mate would be Senator Bob Graham of Florida, a moderate member of the Senate intelligence committee who could just bring the right measure of gravitas to the ticket.

It is in the south that the battle will be fought. Clinton carried four of the 11 states that once made up the Confederacy when he was first elected in 1992. Then Bush eked out victory in all four against Gore two years ago. Had Gore won any of them, he would now be president of the United States. The intricacies of southern politics will be understood by "fresh face" Edwards, while Gore was unable to take even his own home state of Tennessee.

An Edwards-Graham ticket: therein lies the best chance for the Democrats in 2004, even with Bush appearing against that magisterial backdrop of the emotional tug of New York City that summer.