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Democrats Eyeing a Clinton Challenge Get Icy Reception

Influential Democratic activists and elected officials are so far shunning the potential presidential candidacies of O’Malley, Sanders and Webb.

Democratic activists so far have one message for potential presidential candidates: If your name isn’t Clinton or Warren, we aren’t interested.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders have made numerous trips to Iowa and left little doubt they are strongly considering 2016 runs. Virginia Sen. Jim Webb established a formal presidential exploratory committee last month, becoming the only candidate in either party to do so. But the trio has generated little support or interest.

Liberal groups like who are looking for a more progressive alternative to Hillary Clinton, have bypassed these three candidates to endorse Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has said repeatedly she will not run for president.

Meanwhile, the three are being rejected even by Democrats in their home states. Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont and once one of the leading voices in the party’s left wing, announced this month he was endorsing Clinton over Sanders, who was formerly mayor of Dean’s hometown, Burlington. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, the Democrat who succeeded Webb in the Senate, told Bloomberg earlier this month he is also backing Clinton.

A few weeks ago, Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski spoke at a “Ready for Hillary” event, a direct sign she is not backing her state’s outgoing governor. Maryland's two other top Democrats, State Senate President Mike Miller and U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, have also endorsed Clinton.

These early endorsements are critical for candidates to raise money, hire staff and build viable campaigns. And if they can’t build more support over the next few months, O’Malley, Sanders and Webb may either be forced to say they are not following through with full-fledged presidential campaigns or run long-shot candidacies with little to no chance of victory.

Progressives are hungry for a real champion on income inequality, but there are also progressives who are really interested in seeing a woman run and win the presidency

“Finding the oxygen [to compete] will be challenging for these guys,” said John Davis, who was an adviser for John Edwards’ campaign in Iowa in 2008 and then served as chief of staff to Iowa Rep. Bruce Braley. “At this moment, they’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The dynamic among the Democrats is virtually unprecedented in American politics: one woman the heavy favorite for a party’s nomination, another her strongest potential opponent, and three male candidates struggling to compete with them.

Democrats, while reluctant to publicly criticize any of the three potential male candidates, say two factors are limiting them. Clinton is more popular than in 2008. And those who don’t like Clinton view Warren as both the best spokesperson for the party’s populist wing and the kind of person with the national fundraising base to run a viable campaign against Clinton

O’Malley, who endorsed Clinton in 2008, lacks much of a following among the most liberal of Democrats who favor Warren. Webb and Sanders, who are popular with progressive activists, are not seen as the kind of politicians who could build a campaign operation to beat Clinton, as then-Senator Obama did in 2008.

“Progressives are hungry for a real champion on income inequality, but there are also progressives who are really interested in seeing a woman run and win the presidency,” said Neil Sroka of the liberal group Democracy for America, which joined the movement to draft Warren after 42 percent of its members said they backed her in a poll.

Sroka noted that in the informal survey, 24 percent supported Sanders (compared to 23 percent for Clinton), showing he also has appeal among Democratic activists. The Vermont senator has also drawn large crowds of progressives in his appearances in Iowa, as he calls for a Medicare-like, government-run health care system that would cover all Americans and casts Washington as controlled by billionaires.

But waging a true campaign to win the Democratic nomination will require tens of millions of dollars, and perhaps more, if Clinton enters the contest, as is widely expected.

All three of these candidates seem aware of their weak position right now. In the public letter he released announcing the formation of his exploratory committee, more than a year before voting starts in the primary, Webb said he needed to “evaluate whether we might overcome what many commentators see as nearly impossible odds.” O’Malley, who had been the most aggressive about making appearances in Iowa and other states for much of 2013 and 2014, is heading in the opposite direction, putting off declaring his candidacy as he seeks to determine if he could really challenge Clinton.

“If I run for president I want to do it well, and to do it well means to say you need a strong, grassroots movement of people from 50 states in this country. And I have to determine, and will determine, whether or not there is that type of support for a campaign against the billionaire class,” Sanders said in an interview earlier this month on Iowa Public Television.