updated 3/7/2007 12:05:48 PM ET 2007-03-07T17:05:48

Call it the second-tier lament. At a recent house party in the early voting state of New Hampshire, Democratic presidential candidate Chris Dodd became exasperated as he talked about being overshadowed by front-runners Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.

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"At one point, if I'd stood here with 25 years experience in the U.S. Senate, that would have been the end of it," Dodd said. The presidency, he added, was no place for "on-the-job training."

Another Democratic hopeful, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, was similarly frustrated campaigning in Iowa last week. Iowans, he said, "resent that the media has created a myth that two candidates are the only serious ones."

Experience will out?
Dodd, Richardson and Delaware Sen. Joe Biden have stellar resumes, decades of experience and an inviting style on the campaign trail. So far, though, this presidential race has been dominated by the celebrity treatment of Clinton and Obama - and to a lesser extent John Edwards - leaving the second-tier hopefuls struggling to be more than blips on the national political radar.

"A guy like Chris Dodd has more experience than the three front-runners combined, as do Biden and Richardson," said Andrew E. Smith, director of the Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire. "It goes to show you that charisma and money beat experience in most elections. In my view, it's rather unfortunate."

In the New Hampshire center's poll last month of likely Democratic primary voters, Clinton had 35 percent support, Obama 21 and Edwards 16, with the rest of the field in low single digits.

Soldiering on
With more than 10 months before the first votes, the top-heavy Democratic contest has already claimed several casualties. Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh all bowed out early, opting not to compete with the Clinton-Obama drama and their fundraising prowess.

But Dodd, Richardson and Biden have soldiered on, talking about the threat from Iran during stops in South Carolina or the raging violence in Iraq while campaigning in New Hampshire. They have hired staff and are slowly building campaign networks, both nationally and in early voting states. Most importantly, they are trying to pull in enough money to be considered viable when the first campaign fundraising reports are released in mid-April.

Biden, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, ignited a controversy on his first official day in the race when he described Obama as "clean" and "articulate." Since then, he's tried to recover, traveling extensively to the early voting states and picking up key endorsements, especially in South Carolina.

"I've been around so long that if I win or lose this election, I'm going to do it on my own terms," Biden told a New Hampshire college crowd of about 100. He later spoke to about 350 at Dartmouth College.

Crowd appeal
Clinton and Obama typically draw thousands when they travel to the early voting states.

Biden also has endured a few defections, including state Rep. David Mack, an influential South Carolina lawmaker who recently left for Clinton. Biden's fundraising has lagged, largely due to his controversial comments about Obama.

"There are just so many seats on celebrity game shows," said Biden adviser Larry Rasky.

Rasky, who has advised Biden since he first ran for president in 1988, said the campaign was following a road map that relies on raising $20 million before the first voting and a relatively strong showing in Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses.

"Money is the story of the season, and we are being crushed by people who are going to win that game," Rasky said. "So you do what needs to be done to establish long-term credibility with activists on the ground, knowing you harvest that support much later in the process."

Early primary hopes
Dodd, whose political skills were partly honed as chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1996, has been touting small but measurable achievements in early states, such as adding two well-regarded local activists to his campaign staff in Iowa. With his roots in nearby Connecticut, many strategists say Dodd has the potential to catch on in New Hampshire, where he counts Joe Keefe, the influential former state Democratic Party chairman, as a leading backer.

"What New Hampshire allows candidates to do is to defy conventional wisdom, the party establishment and the national media and really connect with voters on a one-to-one basis," Keefe said. "It allows Chris Dodd to say, 'The celebrity candidates may have the floor at this time, but I have 10 months to break through.'"

Richardson has been slowed in his campaign; he's been busy in New Mexico, where the state legislature is set to adjourn late next week. He's made several fundraising trips to California and has campaigned in neighboring Nevada, which will host caucuses next January. But his first trip to Iowa came just last week.

A former congressman, U.N. ambassador and energy secretary, Richardson has arguably the best credentials of any contender. He's also Hispanic and a leader of the Democratic Party's resurgence in the mountain West.

In campaigning, he focuses on his accomplishments as governor, drawing a subtle distinction between himself and the four senators in the Democratic field. Governors, he argues, "actually get things done."

Recently, Richardson scored a significant hire in South Carolina. Lachlan McIntosh, who heads the state Democratic Party there, has signed on as Richardson's state director.

"I think Bill Richardson has the life experience and work experience to be a truly great president," McIntosh said. "America could use a great president about now."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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