The big top

January 26, 2004

OH, THE humiliation. Muzzled like a misbehaving dog. Scripted with self-deprecating remarks and stone-faced attempts at humor. Forced to draft a reluctant wife into the fray. All as a kind of penance to exorcise the demons that stole his months-long front-runner status almost overnight.

Is this goofy state-by-tiny-state primary system, which puts serious political leaders such as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean through a circus-like ordeal, any way to choose a candidate for president?

Certainly not one party leaders would have invented from scratch. But the emotional and physical grind of it serves a valuable purpose in honing the candidates' messages, winnowing the field, and ensuring that nominees for the most powerful job in the world spend some retail face time with at least a few of the people they would presume to govern.

After nearly a year of preliminaries, the Democratic presidential race is now white hot and riveting entertainment for anyone with a taste for politics. The contest to challenge Republican incumbent George W. Bush drew a large field, including perhaps a half-dozen capable of doing the job.

The cliffhanger of the moment is whether Dr. Dean will be able to recover in tomorrow's New Hampshire primary from his surprisingly poor third-place finish in last week's Iowa caucuses -- to which he responded with a much-analyzed primal growl.

Conventional wisdom gives the New Hampshire win to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, now riding high after an upset victory in Iowa. But conventional wisdom is an idiot. Anything can happen in New Hampshire, where voters are deliberately puckish.

In any case, the Democratic contest will remain in doubt until the next round of primaries Feb. 3, and perhaps until Marylanders vote March 2.

Each primary season is accompanied by carping that two small states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, which are not at all representative of the nation as a whole, play a disproportionately large role in selecting presidential nominees. Their spots have become such a tradition -- as well as key drivers for hard-pressed local economies -- that party leaders can't easily change them.

Some balance was added, though, when Democrats advanced to Feb. 3 the primaries in South Carolina and New Mexico, which along with five other states voting that day ensure greater clout for blacks and Hispanics.

In accelerating their primary schedule, Democratic leaders had hoped to unite the party early behind a nominee who could focus full attention and resources on ousting President Bush.

Better, though, to have a standard-bearer who is battle-tested. Running for president can be a humbling experience.

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