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 BidenBiden, Eastland and rejecting the cult of civility Inslee unveils plan to fight fossil fuel pollution Biden lays out immigration priorities, rips Trump for 'assault on dignity' MORE surging into a big lead after announcing his candidacy last month. Vermont Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill's Morning Report - Crunch time arrives for 2020 Dems with debates on deck The Memo: All eyes on faltering Biden ahead of first debate Progressive group launches campaign to identify voters who switch to Warren MORE is a steady, though distant, second.

Emerging in national polls and polls in key states, is a second tier — Senators Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann Warren2020 Democrat: 'My DM's are open and I actually read & respond' Group of wealthy Americans write open letter asking to be taxed more Inslee unveils plan to fight fossil fuel pollution MORE of Massachusetts and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisThe Hill's Morning Report - Crunch time arrives for 2020 Dems with debates on deck The Memo: All eyes on faltering Biden ahead of first debate 2020 primary debate guide: Everything you need to know ahead of the first Democratic showdown MORE of California and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegGroup of wealthy Americans write open letter asking to be taxed more The Hill's Morning Report - Crunch time arrives for 2020 Dems with debates on deck The Memo: All eyes on faltering Biden ahead of first debate 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 HillAnita Hill: I could see myself voting for Biden over Trump Bill Maher: Buttigieg a 'little too young' to be president What I saw at the last impeachment: Rules are for little people MORE-Clarence ThomasClarence ThomasSupreme Court sides with immigrant in gun possession case Conservative Supreme Court justices reverse precedent on property rights cases Supreme Court throws out death sentence of Mississippi inmate MORE hearings or a vote against a corporate-friendly bankruptcy bill seems ancient history. That was all known to Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden, Eastland and rejecting the cult of civility Biden lays out immigration priorities, rips Trump for 'assault on dignity' Democrats not keen to reignite Jerusalem embassy fight 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 ClintonBiden, Eastland and rejecting the cult of civility Democrats not keen to reignite Jerusalem embassy fight The bottom dollar on recession, Trump's base, and his reelection prospects 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 TrumpConway defends herself against Hatch Act allegations amid threat of subpoena How to defuse Gulf tensions and avoid war with Iran Trump says 'stubborn child' Fed 'blew it' by not cutting rates 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'RourkeCastro pushes back on O'Rourke criticism of plan to decriminalize border crossings Overnight Health Care: Key Trump drug pricing proposal takes step forward | Missouri Planned Parenthood clinic loses bid for license | 2020 Democrats to take part in Saturday forum on abortion rights Warren pledges to ban private prisons 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 BennetInslee unveils plan to fight fossil fuel pollution The Hill's Morning Report - Crunch time arrives for 2020 Dems with debates on deck 2020 primary debate guide: Everything you need to know ahead of the first Democratic showdown 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.