Then, there were two

February 19, 2004

IT PROBABLY doesn't seem that way right now to Sen. John Kerry, but Wisconsin voters have done the Democratic Party a great favor.

By rallying in such numbers to Sen. John Edwards that the North Carolina Democrat finished a close second to his colleague from Massachusetts in Tuesday's primary, citizens of the Badger State kept the presidential-nominating contest going at least a few more weeks.

That means more attention -- likely generating more money and more volunteers -- as more voters, including Marylanders, get to take part in choosing the nominee before the matter is effectively decided.

A prolonged nomination battle also forestalls arrival of the dead zone: the normally news-free period after the top prize is secured but before the presumptive nominee is formally anointed at the party's national convention in the summer. No matter how enthusiastic a challenger's supporters may be, it's difficult to maintain momentum through months of downtime against an incumbent who has both the White House platform and a huge edge in money.

Mr. Kerry is far enough ahead of Mr. Edwards in delegates that their competition might not last much past the Super Tuesday contests, when ballots are cast in Maryland and nine other states, including the powerhouses of California and New York.

And yet, Mr. Edwards, a charismatic speaker who has adopted a populist theme to contrast with the more establishment-like Mr. Kerry, is creating enough excitement on the stump to discourage further predictions in a contest that has frequently defied them.

The biggest surprise was former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who soared from nowhere last summer to head of the pack, dominated the race all fall, then flared out before the first votes were cast in January. He finally left the race yesterday after 17 straight primary defeats.

But Mr. Dean's contribution to the contest was huge: He gave his party the guts to sharply challenge President Bush on the Iraq war, speaking out at a time when other contenders were muted. Further, the Dean campaign trailblazed on the Internet, producing legions of young, new volunteers and contributors whom he urged yesterday to continue fighting for progressive issues in the party platform.

Theories abound about why Mr. Dean crashed and burned: He was too angry, too blunt, too arrogant, too eager to wrap up the race before it began or simply peaked too soon. History records that movement leaders, as Mr. Dean fashions himself, rarely transition well to party standard-bearer. Think Eugene McCarthy, John McCain, even Newt Gingrich.

The Vermonter still has a large following and potentially pivotal role to play in his party's success in November. His challenge now will be how to best use that leverage.

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