Late 2020 entrants crash Democratic Party

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Former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick entered the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination race months after his rivals, but hopes there is still room to shine in early voting states

Former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick entered the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination race months after his rivals, but hopes there is still room to shine in early voting states (AFP Photo/Joseph Prezioso)

Washington (AFP) - Eleven months into the Democratic 2020 nomination race, the prospect of two more candidates joining the crowded field has triggered worry that the party is struggling to find the right challenger to face US President Donald Trump.

Former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick launched his belated bid Thursday, becoming the 18th candidate in the race less than three months before the first nomination votes are cast in Iowa.

Billionaire former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, a political moderate, recently filed to be on the ballot in multiple states, sending a stinging message that he doubts the current leading candidates can defeat Trump.

Even Hillary Clinton, the party's failed 2016 nominee, said this week she would "never say never" to another presidential run.

None of them has been on the debate stage this year, and they have been absent from robust policy discussions that frame the battle between the party's progressives and moderates.

But the fact Patrick has jumped in and Bloomberg is flirting with doing so suggests the race remains unsettled, and that influential Democrats are not pleased with the current options.

"There's a lot of turbulence within the party, a lot of angst" built up around "this overriding desire to find someone who can beat Trump," political professor Matthew Dallek of George Washington University told AFP.

Frontrunner Joe Biden, the argument goes, launched his campaign as a unifier but is now seen as a gaffe-prone candidate whose time may have passed.

His connection to the impeachment inquiry -- Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company -- could drag the candidate down and provide fodder for devastating Republican attack ads.

The prospect of progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren as the nominee has raised fears, particularly among Democratic insiders, that the party has tilted too far left, leaving it unable to win over enough independents or Republicans frustrated with Trump.

Ditto for liberal Senator Bernie Sanders, whom Republicans warn wants more socialism in America.

"I think there's a sense that Biden is not as strong or is more vulnerable than people thought, and that Elizabeth Warren is -- among a lot of Democrats -- not the person to go up against Donald Trump," Dallek said.

And Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old gay veteran mayor of South Bend, Indiana who has climbed into the top tier, may be seen as too young and inexperienced.

"Maybe they're looking for a younger Biden, or a Biden with less baggage, or maybe a more experienced Buttigieg," said Zachary Albert, an assistant professor of politics at Brandeis University.

Patrick, 63, fits that role, Albert said. He was one of the first African-American governors in the country, serving eight years in office; has a wealth of corporate experience; and is friends with party dignitaries including the last Democratic president, Barack Obama.

But rival candidates have already met thousands of voters, hosted dozens of town halls in early-voting states Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, organized sprawling grassroots canvassing and established vast donor networks.

- 'Uphill climb' -

Playing catch up is a tall order.

"It's hard to build passion on a dime," entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who has risen to sixth in the race but only after a yearlong campaign slog across Iowa, tweeted Thursday.

"He has an uphill climb ahead," he said of Patrick, whose national profile is lacking.

The better-known Bloomberg, 77, may be biding his time to see whether early voters coalesce around a candidate.

"He's kind of waiting to see what happens," said Robert Boatright, associate professor of political science at Clark University in Massachusetts.

"If the Democratic field is split coming out of the first four or five primaries, then at that point people may be looking for an alternative."

The handwringing is nothing new. Both parties have seen significant shakeups during previous primary campaigns, including in 2016 when underdog Trump swatted aside the favorite Jeb Bush to seize the Republican nomination.

Albert, the Brandeis professor, said it's too early to sound an alarm about a weak Democratic field.

"If you see the party... not being able to settle behind a particular candidate or two candidates in the longer term, I think that would be more of a sign of weakness," he said.