Jewish World Review Nov. 17, 2003/ 22 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Wesley Pruden

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The Pundit Primary has a winner | This may be the shortest presidential nominating season we've ever seen. Howard Dean will soon be starting his second term, if you believe what you read and hear, and we're still two months short of the first Iowa caucuses. The ground in New Hampshire isn't even white.

But of course no one believes everything he reads, not even the man who writes it, and we're still in November, two weeks short of Thanksgiving. The only sure thing is that the Democrats still don't have the prospect of a genuine threat to George W. Bush.

The pundits and political correspondents are always obsessed with beauty contests and horse races, who's got the best legs and the most impressive lungs. Handicapping the candidates, dishing the campaign gossip and peddling predictions, is always great fun. What makes this year different is that this time we're attempting to anoint not the favorite, but the winner. The former governor of Vermont is making a strong and unexpected showing, but so far a showing is all it is. The Pundit Primary does not a nominee make.

We've been here before. Winners of the Pundit Primary in past years include the likes of Edmund Muskie, Nelson Rockefeller and Gary Hart, to name only three. Henry Cabot Lodge came home from Saigon in 1968, where he had been the U.S. ambassador, and lapped the field in the Pundit Primary only to run dead last behind an obscure senator named Hiram Fong when the clerk called the roll at the Republican National Convention. John Connally, a former Democratic governor of Texas, switched parties and became a prohibitive Republican favorite in the Pundit Primary and wound up spending $10 million, when that was a lot of money, to win only a single delegate. Winning the Pundit Primary can be fatal.

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The hysteria in the punditocracy for Howard Dean — not John Dean, as certain cable-TV commentators occasionally call him — is not duplicated in the ranks of the managers, pollsters, consultants and the barnacles that attach themselves to the campaigns. "We got to where we were because most of the field underestimated us," Joe Trippi, his manager, tells Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post.

In fact, the people who are so sure that the governor should start picking his Cabinet are the very people who were only yesterday telling us that he was merely a trifle in the window of the boutique they call Vermont. He has plenty of time, with ample room to make the fatal misstep, to prove them right.

Barely more than a fortnight ago the leader, by fully a length and a half, in the Pundit Primary was Wesley Clark, the mad bomber of Bosnia, who would dispose of the dwarfs and single-handedly dismantle George W. Bush. He was introduced as the reincarnation of Stonewall Jackson, or at least Pat Cleburne, the warrior hero from the South preaching the gospel of war no more. Instead he has shown himself to be the reincarnation of George B. McClellan, the prettiest of Abraham Lincoln's generals, who tried and failed miserably to make the antiwar message work against old Abe in 1864. So much for the antiwar warrior.

What the Democrats really wanted was not Wesley Clark, argues a yellow-dog Democratic columnist in the general's hometown of Little Rock, but the idea of Wesley Clark. "Clark's instant appeal was as an idea," writes John Brummett for the several Stephens newspapers of Arkansas. "Now, about six weeks into his candidacy, all Clark offers is that with which he started, meaning an idea. ... His actual human campaign performance has been a dud, beset by misstep and diminishment."

Now Wesley Clark is fading, in the way that Bill moved Hillary off center stage, but the idea is not. There's still the yearning among the sane and the sober for an authentic alternative to take on George W. Bush. The Iowa caucuses follow the Pundit Primary, and then comes New Hampshire. After that the going gets really tough for Mr. Gloom and his alter ego Dr. Doom. The campaign moves to the likes of South Carolina and Oklahoma, where the Democrats are a receding force but enough of what's left of them is still capable of popping a McGovernite balloon.

That's not even the worst of what's ahead of the Democratic nominee, whoever he is. After the convention comes the real campaign, where a combination of Republicans, reality, the Gaffe Patrol and blond ambition, armed with sabotage, subterfuge and subversion to protect her chances in '08, lie in wait.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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