AFTER his big win in Michigan, Jesse Jackson must be given a new level of scrutiny by the public, the press, and political professionals. The Rev. Mr. Jackson's color is not the issue. His ability to be an effective president, his leadership experience or lack of it, must be appraised. A close look must be given his proposals, and whether he could deliver on them.
The related political issue is this: If a candidate were to win a plurality of Democratic delegates by convention time but fell short of a majority, would the ``superdelegates'' be morally obligated to deliver enough votes for him to win the nomination outright?
Put another way: If Jackson, say, were ahead after the first three-quarters of the Democratic presidential race, should he be given the fourth quarter as a bonus?
No. If Jackson is gaining strength - particularly if he were to win the California and New Jersey primaries decisively in June - then party leaders who make up the superdelegate contingent, mostly uncommitted before the convention, might feel compelled to swing in behind him. But not otherwise.
Jackson's being black should not be a factor. From here on, his qualifications for the job should be taken seriously.
Jackson has to convince the party pros that he can ably lead the ticket in the fall.
The same position should be taken if Michael Dukakis or Albert Gore were to lead unimpressively in June: No automatic endorsement. This is the colorblind test the party must pass. The belief that ``a black cannot win'' is no excuse. After all, the Democrats nominated George McGovern and Walter Mondale, who fully proved they could not win.
After the first ballot, if no winner is declared, the regular delegates would be free to move to other candidates. This is the way the rules are set up. Then someone else already in the field, a Paul Simon, perhaps, would have a chance.
Or someone not in the field could be nominated: a Mario Cuomo, Bill Bradley, or Sam Nunn.
In Washington Saturday night, Mr. Cuomo certainly impressed a hall-full of political mavens at the Gridiron Club dinner as a man with the presence, and the verbal and intellectual gifts, to engage the Republican opposition. He did the same thing at the Democratic convention four years ago, upstaging not only the nominee, Walter Mondale, but also Jesse Jackson, the 1988 pack's best orator.
Mr. Bradley and Mr. Nunn have different but no less significant political attributes.
Of course, Mr. Dukakis could begin to recover from his woeful showing last Saturday against Jackson in Michigan with today's vote in Connecticut, a neighboring state to Dukakis's home turf. A week ago he led Jackson 3 to 1 in a Connecticut Poll survey. If he wins by 2 to 1 or less, he would be seen to be slipping further.
The next big test is the New York primary April 19. Cuomo may decide not to endorse anyone in his home state - he could be embarrassed if his candidate did poorly, undermining his own prospect for the nomination at the convention.
Democrats could be repeating their protest-vote pattern of 1980, when Jimmy Carter and Edward Kennedy alternated wins on the road, as voters kept voting against the perceived leader.
Jackson is the candidate in the field most attractive to those in the party concerned about civil rights, labor's eclipse, and the immediate personal costs from drug use and failure in the schools. By comparison, the other Democrats look more like Republicans. Partywide, let alone among Republican and independents in a general election, Jackson's base of support is narrow. Many Jewish voters, important to the intellectual and financial clout of the party, would object to Jackson's views on the Middle East.
This takes nothing away from Jackson's showing. But neither does it give him anything free at the convention.