WASHINGTON — The race for the Democratic presidential nomination is far from over. There are two long months to go before the first votes are cast in the first nominating contest, the Iowa caucuses. A sizable portion of the Democratic electorate has never heard of many of the candidates.
And among the first spate of primaries, there is no clear common leader: Dick Gephardt is ahead by a nose in Iowa; Howard Dean is way out front in New Hampshire; and John Edwards and Wesley Clark are neck and neck in South Carolina.
But there is a growing sense of inevitability among many political observers that, barring some unforeseen event or revelation, Dr. Dean will win the Democratic nomination. The former governor of Vermont got a boost last week from two major union endorsements, and from his announcement that he will forgo the federal limits on fundraising and try to go head to head financially against President Bush - a show of confidence that his supporters will write more checks and push the send button on more Internet donations.
In the wider Democratic universe, however, the prospect of a Dean nomination has sent some party members into paroxysms of private hand-wringing. Not only do they see him losing badly to Bush, they also see Dean hurting Democratic candidates further down on the ticket - rippling into congressional races, and possibly even boosting Republican control of the 100-seat Senate close to the crucial threshold of 60 seats, which would make it filibuster-proof.
"We could come perilously close to a one-party state," says a longtime Democratic activist with no formal ties to any campaign. "We could wind up with two more Antonin Scalias [on the Supreme Court]," he adds, referring to one of the most conservative justices.
Some big-name Democrats have begun to speak openly about Dean's vulnerabilities as a potential nominee. In a Washington Post interview published Monday, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D), who has not endorsed any candidate, says if Dean is nominated, he will have to work hard to show that he's as tough as Bush in handling the war on terrorism. Of the leading Democratic candidates, Dean is the only one to oppose the war with Iraq - the issue that energized his candidacy in the first place. He also has less experience in defense and foreign policy.
On the flip side, some Republicans - also seeing Dean as their likely opponent - are warning against hubris, and putting out the word that Dean must be taken seriously. Bush political guru Karl Rove still insists, in public at least, that the 2004 race will be close. Robert Kagan, a former Reagan administration foreign-policy official, argues at length why Dean is no George McGovern, who lost big to President Nixon in 1972.
In a memo last month, two Portland-based GOP pollsters warned that "Howard Dean can win because he believes in what he is saying, because he can semi-legitimately spin his record as governor into one of fiscal conservatism, and because he comes across as if he actually cares about people."
For Republicans, the nightmare is that voters think Dean will be so easy to defeat, they don't turn out in large enough numbers. The Portland pollsters, Hans Kaiser and Bob Moore, have constructed a chart that shows how Dean can win next year - even without winning Florida.
Early in the Democratic race, Dean distinguished himself as the insurgent candidate, and the different power centers of the Democratic "establishment" kept him at arm's length, hoping that one of their own, such as Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, would catch fire. That hasn't happened, and now key elements of the establishment have embraced Dean - such as the two big labor groups that endorsed him last week - and can marry their resources to Dean's existing movement.
But for some garden-variety Democratic consultants working to get their candidates elected next fall, the prospect of Dean at the top of the ticket is a sore subject. "Yes, there's some nervousness," says Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan political analyst. "Democratic operatives tend to be very cold-blooded about this. They're not ideologues; they're just making pure political calculations, working on House and Senate campaigns."
Mr. Rothenberg adds that this sense of unease probably mirrors some concern in the Democratic establishment that Dean is too much of an outsider, that he's too angry and can be painted as too far left.
If Dean begins to win primaries and looks to be locking in the nomination, the party will fall in line and back him. But among operatives, Rothenberg says, the thinking is that while Dean may bring in 2 or 3 million new voters with his brash, "truth-telling" style, he may alienate 5 or 6 million others.
Ken Smukler, a Democratic consultant in Philadelphia, says the sense of panic about Dean was prevalent two or three months ago, but is dying down. The two labor endorsements "went a long way toward tamping down the panic that had begun to set in," says Mr. Smukler.
Still, one discouraged outpost of the Democratic Party is the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the breeding ground for many of the centrist ideas that President Clinton and Vice President Gore espoused and which appear, in this cycle, to be out of sync with what Democratic base voters are looking for - a clear contrast with a president they cannot abide.
Will Marshall, the DLC president, speaks of the "myth of inevitability" that the "Dean propaganda machine" has skillfully cultivated. When does the myth morph into reality?
"When actual voters start voting," he says. "What we have now is a pundit primary, in which a lot of commentators seems ready to anoint Dean the nominee two months before anyone has had a chance to cast an actual vote. I guess we've got to fill up the time somehow. I'm willing to wait and see what the people think."