Clear leaders have emerged in the Democratic pack

There are 23 Democratic presidential candidates. But it's starting to look more like a gang of five with a solid leader, a well-known challenger, and three contenders coming up on the outside.

Polls show Joe BidenJoe BidenOvernight Health Care: US hits 10,000 coronavirus deaths | Trump touts 'friendly' talk with Biden on response | Trump dismisses report on hospital shortages as 'just wrong' | Cuomo sees possible signs of curve flattening in NY We need to be 'One America,' the polling says — and the politicians should listen 16 things to know today about coronavirus MORE surging into a big lead after announcing his candidacy last month. Vermont Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersWisconsin Supreme Court blocks governor's effort to delay election The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden, Trump discuss coronavirus response; Wisconsin postpones elections Wisconsin governor postpones Tuesday's election over coronavirus MORE is a steady, though distant, second.

Emerging in national polls and polls in key states, is a second tier — Senators Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOn The Money: Trump officials struggle to get relief loans out the door | Dow soars more than 1600 points | Kudlow says officials 'looking at' offering coronavirus bonds Overnight Energy: Trump floats oil tariffs amid Russia-Saudi dispute | Warren knocks EPA over 'highly dangerous' enforcement rollback | 2019 sees big increase in methane levels in air Ex-CFPB director urges agency to 'act immediately' to help consumers during pandemic MORE of Massachusetts and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Dybul interview; Boris Johnson update Biden hosts potential VP pick Gretchen Whitmer on podcast Why Gretchen Whitmer's stock is rising with Team Biden MORE of California and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegButtigieg launches new PAC to aid down-ballot candidates HuffPost political reporter on why Bernie fell way behind Biden Economists fear slow pace of testing will prolong recession MORE — consistently ahead of the rest of the pack.

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In the Real Clear Politics average of recent national polls, Biden is at 35 percent, more than double Sanders’ support, with Warren, Harris and Buttigieg in the higher side of single digits. No one else breaks 4 percent.

The same holds in surveys in next year's important early contests. In Iowa, site of the first caucuses in February, Biden holds a narrower lead over Sanders, followed by Buttigieg, Harris and Warren.

There's a similar pattern in the first two primary states, New Hampshire and South Carolina (where New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker edges out Buttigieg), as well as two huge March contests in delegate-rich California and Florida

Polls, at this stage, largely reflect name recognition; events of the next six months — debates, political support, fund-raising, any major mistakes or scandals — could jumble the race. But with this accelerated process, it's very uphill for anyone with little support at this stage to blow past the field. 

There is a sense that support for Sanders, whose core backing seemed rock solid, may continue to erode. The biggest target, though, for all others is Biden; that's where the votes are.

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The former Vice president, who at 78 would be the oldest President in American history, has gotten off to an auspicious start with a carefully controlled campaign that minimizes exposure to the media and even voters, reducing risks for mistakes. The early attack lines on his handling of the 1991 Anita HillAnita Faye HillTrump sets up for bruising campaign against Biden Clarence Thomas breaks his silence in theaters nationwide Anita Hill to Iowa crowd: 'Statute of limitations' for Biden apology is 'up' MORE-Clarence ThomasClarence ThomasSupreme Court blocks Wisconsin from extending absentee voting deadline Supreme Court sides with police in traffic stop case Supreme Court won't hear challenge to DC Metro ban on religious ads MORE hearings or a vote against a corporate-friendly bankruptcy bill seems ancient history. That was all known to Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump touts 'friendly' conversation with Biden Biden hosts potential VP pick Gretchen Whitmer on podcast History's lessons for Donald Trump MORE in 2008 when he picked the Delaware Senator to be his running mate.

A more relevant liability may be that Democratic challengers, like Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonHistory's lessons for Donald Trump Clintons send pizza to NY hospital staff treating coronavirus Budowsky: President Trump, meet with all former living presidents MORE in 1992 or Barack Obama 16 years later, succeeded by making the election about the future. Biden does not resonate future. Perhaps the antipathy to President TrumpDonald John TrumpOvernight Health Care: US hits 10,000 coronavirus deaths | Trump touts 'friendly' talk with Biden on response | Trump dismisses report on hospital shortages as 'just wrong' | Cuomo sees possible signs of curve flattening in NY We need to be 'One America,' the polling says — and the politicians should listen Barr tells prosecutors to consider coronavirus risk when determining bail: report MORE will make that less germane next year.

To overtake the front runners, any insurgent will have to credibly show in the polls they can win in November; the overwhelming desire to beat Trump is a higher priority than ideology, age, gender or race for many Democratic voters.

The large field of also rans, as of today, bring some pretty good credentials. It was a short while ago that Booker and Texas Rep. Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeO'Rourke slams Texas official who suggested grandparents risk their lives for economy during pandemic Hispanic Caucus campaign arm unveils non-Hispanic endorsements Five Latinas who could be Biden's running mate MORE were considered among the party's rising stars. Others include successful Western governors, a former Obama cabinet member, two women Senators just reelected overwhelmingly, some of the highest profile young House members and Colorado Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetHillicon Valley: Coronavirus tracking sparks surveillance concerns | Target delivery workers plan Tuesday walkout | Federal agency expedites mail-in voting funds to states | YouTube cracks down on 5G conspiracy videos Why being connected really matters for students Democratic senator criticizes Zoom's security and privacy policies MORE, considered one of the most thoughtful politicians in the land.

They not only have to take votes away from the front-runners but outpace the trio of challengers who're establishing a marker.

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These three face different challenges to move up. Warren has to deftly persuade the party's left that Sanders is yesterday and she's tomorrow. Her further ascension is inextricably tied to his slippage. 

Harris has to show on the campaign trail the same command she displays as a prosecutor/inquisitor; she devastated Attorney General William Barr in a Judiciary Committee hearing this year. As a candidate, too often she equivocates, looking over her left shoulder — refusing, for example, to criticize Sanders’ proposal to allow imprisoned murderers and rapists to vote. 

Buttigieg has to build on his zeitgeist moment as the new generation outsider, persuading America it’s ready for his unusual mix of attributes: a 37-year-old mayor of a city with little more than 100,000 people, gay, an Afghanistan war veteran, committed Christian, and very brainy Rhodes scholar. 

The tough tests eventually for every aspirant will be to marshal the resources and strategy to navigate a difficult nominating process in which 29 states — with the vast majority of delegates — hit the starting blocks in the first six weeks.

If modern political history is a guide, it may not be sufficient to win Iowa or New Hampshire, the first two tests — but no candidate has won the nomination after losing both.

Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for the Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.