Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader in the Senate, unexpectedly announced yesterday he would not run for the presidency in 2004, days before he was scheduled to launch his campaign at a rally in his native South Dakota.
His decision means there are five declared Democratic candidates, the Senators John Edwards and John Kerry, the former House minority leader Richard Gephardt, Vermont's Governor, Howard Kean, and the black minister Al Sharpton.
Others may join them, including Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the vice-presidential running mate of the 2000 Democratic nominee Al Gore. Mr Gore announced last month he would not run, throwing the contest wide open.
Mr Daschle's White House ambitions had been dented by the Republican recapture of the Senate in November's congressional mid-term elections – a failure that many Democratic activists blamed on the lack of a clear message from the party leadership on Capitol Hill. He was unable to make much impression in early campaign polls, although his former job as Senate majority leader made him nationally known.
Mr Daschle would have been a force in the important Iowa caucuses, which kick off the primary season next January. As senator from a neighbouring state, he was well known in Iowa; victory there would have positioned him perfectly for a bell-wether primary in New Hampshire a week later.
The biggest beneficiary may be Mr Gephardt, for whom anything less than a win in Iowa would probably be fatal. A native of Missouri, he has staked all on Iowa, where he has a strong network. Mr Kerry, who competed with Mr Daschle among higher income Democratic voters, may also gain.
But a new survey of likely Democratic voters underlined how anything could happen in the battle to challenge George Bush in 2004. Messrs Lieberman, Kerry, Gephardt and Edwards were neck-and-neck, at 18 to 13 per cent of those polled.