AFTER this week's Colorado and Wisconsin contests, Jesse Jackson barely trails Michael Dukakis in declared convention delegates (the count: Dukakis, 738; Jackson, 711; Albert Gore, 399; Paul Simon, 171). The Rev. Mr. Jackson, fairly enough, boasts of leading Mr. Dukakis by about 50,000 popular votes cast so far - though a popular vote counts for no more in a nomination race than it does in a general election decided by an Electoral College tally. Where Jackson falls short is in the assumed preference of undeclared ``superdelegates.'' These party officials and heavyweights might be expected to tilt the convention outcome to Dukakis if he leads at the end of the primary run in June. But no one knows for sure how the superdelegates will vote.
Even assuming, for the sake of analysis, that Jackson will not be nominated, he stands to be a considerable presence at the July convention. He will be able to influence the party platform and will get a prime-time speaking slot. He will give a sense of participation to those who voted for him. These include not only blacks, but many working-class Americans and intellectuals who do not readily identify with the brighter-penny, establishment candidates, Dukakis and Mr. Gore. These Jackson backers are assets for the party in the fall.
Often, candidates achieve something independently of winning office. Jimmy Carter in 1976, even before he entered the White House the following January, did three big things: He restored a sense of belonging to Deep South Democrats; he demonstrated the opportunities inherent in the party's nomination reforms; and by the way he campaigned against the imperial presidency, he began the healing of national disappointment over Watergate.
Similarly, Jackson's achievements loom large, regardless of what is yet to come. He has brought the candidacy of a black American for president to the level of success already reached in American mayoral and congressional races. If Jackson were more of a Tom Bradley, more mainstream in his policies and style, he would have an even better chance of showing that color has faded dramatically as a determiner of voting outcomes.
How far America has come in a quarter century, since the civil rights movement that helped launch Jackson's career!
For this reason alone - to see how far a Jackson candidacy can carry - it makes sense that both Dukakis and Jackson continue their mutually nonaggressive approach to the New York primary, the next big campaign event, with 255 delegates at stake. New York Gov. Mario Cuomo may well decide to endorse neither candidate: Let the voters decide.
Governor Dukakis is showing poise. He may not be charismatic, but he is certainly self-possessed. He is sticking to his basic promise: general prosperity and people-based policies based on his Massachusetts management record.
Mr. Simon's candidacy is likely to end this week. Gore's may be headed nowhere; even as a vice-presidential prospect, the moderate liberal Democrat would add little more to a Dukakis ticket than a ``New South'' accent.