Picking a Winner Before Primaries

Some people just don't want to wait until the Democratic primaries to decide who the presidential nominee will be. They've already anointed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, judging by his fundraising, polls, and endorsement by two powerful labor unions.

Perhaps it would be wiser to wait until the voters cast their ballots next year - or at least until voters are paying closer attention, making opinion polls more reliable.

After several days on the defensive over his Confederate-flag gaffe, Dr. Dean has regained some momentum. First, he announced he was dispensing with public funding of his campaign, so successful is his fundraising. Second, he reaped the endorsement of two of the biggest labor unions, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union.

Meanwhile Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, himself once the supposed front-runner, is trailing badly, not only in Iowa but more important, in neighboring New Hampshire. Senator Kerry clumsily fired his campaign manager, prompting other staffers to resign. The resulting flap gave more ammunition to those who say the senator relies too much on conflicting advice. How, they ask, can a candidate run the country if he can't manage his campaign?

But it would be unwise to write Kerry off just yet. He still has powerful supporters in New Hampshire. His personal wealth has enabled him to join Dean in rejecting public funding. The party establishment would prefer him to Dean. If the rebuilding of Iraq and Afghanistan doesn't show progress in the next few months, anxious Democratic voters might prefer a war hero with foreign- policy experience.

Dean's union endorsements were a blow to Rep. Richard Gephardt, who had hoped to win the endorsement of the entire AFL-CIO. But Mr. Gephardt still has support from industrial unions - support that's helped him regain the lead in Iowa.

Other candidates are still viable. Gen. Wesley Clark has stumbled but continues to gather supporters. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina could yet pull off a surprise. Many of the candidates are trying to knock Dean off the lead by poring over his past statements to see if they contradict what he's saying now.

How voters will react to all this in January and February is unknowable. Dean, after all, was once only a distant possibility in the pack. That should be enough to keep anyone from rashly picking a winner now.

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