Of competence and charisma

THE New York primary confirmed what's been in the wind since February - that Michael Dukakis is the consensus choice of most Democrats. Jesse Jackson, though still showing strength, dropped back into a firm runner-up position. For all practical purposes, the nomination races of both parties have now ended. With the probability of favorable outcomes just ahead in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, Mr. Dukakis is likely to keep widening his lead.

True, polling of New York voters has once again raised questions about his appeal. The general feeling seems to be, ``Ho hum, there's no one better.'' But the chances are good that a majority of voters are more interested in someone who can manage the government well than in someone with fire and charisma.

Still, fire has its value in a political campaign. It brings out the voters. Since the Democrats need a large turnout in November to have a credible shot at victory, Dukakis will need to draw on the fervor so successfully aroused by the Rev. Mr. Jackson.

Both candidates now seem to have an eye on this need. During two weeks of campaigning in New York's volatile political environs, the Massachusetts governor studiously avoided the kind of acrimony that marred Albert Gore's efforts. That can only strengthen relations between his camp and Jackson's. By the same token, Jackson stuck to his vow to hold the ``high ground'' and not trade barbs with the other candidates.

It's possible to envision a constructive union of their forces - not necessarily through Jackson's presence on the ticket, which still seems unlikely, but through thoughtful incorporation of Jackson's issues and a joint determination to defeat the Republicans. The Democrats can only hope that will be enough to win Jackson's legions of voters in the fall.

The barbs were out in New York, of course, thanks to Senator Gore's dubious ally, Mayor Edward Koch. The mayor's constant endeavor to trip up Jackson by hurling bits of his past at him apparently backfired. Polls indicated that more voters were disgusted than persuaded. So much for the power of negative campaigning. Mr. Gore, to his credit, gave kudos to both his opponents and will no doubt do his part to emphasize party unity when, as expected today, he announces the end of his campaign.

George Bush can watch all this in relative calm. His delegate total now hovers within 100 or so of going over the top. But behind the calm is the realization that he's likely to have a very competitive battle in the fall. If the Democrats can build on the beginnings of party unity, they may yet rise from the dust of their recent presidential drubbings.

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