The Tortoises and Dr. Dean

Election pundits are out in full force, what with Labor Day past and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts officially launching his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. (What exactly was he doing before Tuesday?)

Unfortunately for the candidates, the public has yet to pay much attention. According to a new CBS News poll, two-thirds of those questioned couldn't even name one Democratic presidential candidate.

That public apathy (not unusual at this point in a race) makes the constant speculation over who's the front-runner the political equivalent of a sports-radio call-in show. And the California recall is stealing whatever limelight the national contenders might have.

According to the CBS poll, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut draws the most support from registered Democrat voters - with 14 percent. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri are the only other candidates garnering double digits. (Of course, there is no national primary.)

But for the inside-the-Beltway crowd, Dr. Dean is the real front- runner. He's so far out front in fundraising that he may dispense with public financing. His hard-line position against the war in Iraq and tough criticism of President Bush warm the hearts of liberal-activists. He's also surged to statistical leads in key-state polls - outdistancing previous favorites Kerry in New Hampshire and Gephardt in Iowa.

Even so, the race remains wide open. At this point in 1996, Republican Sen. Bob Dole held a wide lead in New Hampshire, yet lost to Patrick Buchanan on primary day.

Dean could peak too soon. He could falter in a barrage of negative press coverage. Events could overtake his campaign themes. Another candidate (Gen. Wesley Clark?) could enter the race and upset the poll numbers.

At present, the Vermonter appears formidable. But to write off the others would be foolish - and unhealthy for a democracy's political market.

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