Dean of Democrats

Pop quiz: Who is the front- runner for the 2004 Democratic Party nomination for president?

A. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who was anointed early on by pundits, and leads in the New Hampshire polls and in total money raised.

B. Former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, who draws enthusiastic crowds of disgruntled liberals everywhere he goes, is burning up the Internet, and surprised everyone by coming in first in money raised during the April to June quarter.

C. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who was the vice-presidential candidate in 2000 and leads in nationwide polls - although not in such states as New Hampshire and Iowa - and whose fundraising continues to lag.

D. I didn't know there was a Democratic nomination race; isn't the election next year?

If you selected "D," you're in good company - relatively few Americans are paying attention to the Democratic race at this point. But for the candidates and the party activists supporting them, the race has reached the competitive level of the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.

The question of front-runner status may seem silly, but it isn't to the candidates. The perception of who's ahead affects media coverage, fund-raising, and volunteer recruitment - all important assets for a candidate.

Governor Dean has grabbed the spotlight from Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who led in first-quarter fundraising, but who is struggling in New Hampshire and Iowa.

Dean has surprised pundits and party stalwarts alike with his fund-raising, his ability to organize over the Web, and his unabashed liberalism - a marked contrast from his moderate record in Montpelier.

Now these same observers wonder whether Dean could win the nomination, and if so, whether he would be the next Jimmy Carter (a centrist who came from nowhere to defeat an incumbent president) or the next George McGovern (an antiwar liberal who was swamped in one of the 20th century's most lopsided elections).

The Dean phenomenon threatens to eclipse candidates such as Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois, the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. It also will complicate life for Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, who's sending strong signals that he'll enter the race.

For his part, Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri has managed to stay in the top tier by dint of his long service as the party's House leader, his strong support from unions, and his lead in neighboring Iowa.

For all the candidates, the challenge is how to attract votes among the party's liberal faithful - the most likely to vote in next year's primaries - while not alienating those independents and Republicans whose votes are needed to capture the White House.

Democrats can't afford a "feel-good" nominee. They need one who can compete with George W. Bush.

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