WASHINGTON – If you grant that Howard Dean is the overwhelming favorite to win the Democratic presidential nomination, the next question is whether he can survive such sky-high expectations.
As the front-runner, the former Vermont governor upped the ante Tuesday with former Vice President Al Gore's coveted endorsement. Add that to two other political coups — abandoning the public finance system and gaining support of two huge labor unions — and Dean looms large over the nine-member field.
He's a big target.
That was in evidence in Tuesday night's debate, when eight other candidates turned against Dean and even Gore — casting the endorsement as a slap at independent-minded voters, a throwback to the days of party bosses.
"We're not going to have a coronation," said Sen. John Edwards (search) of North Carolina.
Gore's backing will certainly help Dean in many ways, but the advantages are limited.
"As both Howard Dean and Al Gore have pointed out, not one caucus has been held. Not one primary vote has been cast. The voters are just beginning to tune into this process," said Michael Feldman, Democratic strategist from Washington who worked for Gore's 2000 campaign.
"The other potential downside effect for Dean is the expectations game," Feldman said. "As I am sure the Dean people are well aware of, these poll numbers — especially this far out — don't reflect the electorate in places like Iowa and New Hampshire. A strong showing by one of the other Democrats in this environment could give one of them a chance to claim victory without winning."
Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark (search) may be best positioned to fill that bill. He has gained some ground in polls here, and is the only candidate capable of matching Dean almost dollar-for-dollar.
Trying to take the luster off the newly minted endorsement, Clark threw Gore's words back in his face.
"To quote another former Democratic leader, I think elections are about people not about the powerful. I think it was Al Gore who said that," he said.
Rep. Richard Gephardt (search) could fit Feldman's theory, as well, if he win Iowa's caucuses and gains momentum for the Jan. 27 primary here. He is doing poorly in New Hampshire polls, thus a solid second or third place would be a pleasant surprise.
"The race is now on to see who can be the 'Comeback Kid' of 2004," Feldman said, referring to former President Clinton's slogan after finishing second in New Hampshire more than a decade ago.
Dean, meanwhile, leads by as much as 30 points in New Hampshire polls. It's unfair to expect a victory that size, but anything short of a blowout might cut against the former Vermont governor.
"Odds are that is the way the story line will go. He won't do as well as people think he will do but that doesn't mean losing the nomination," said Elaine Kamarck, former Gore adviser and now a Harvard professor. "With the possible exception of Clark, he's got the resources to go a long way, even if he hits a problem with expectations."
"The others should have Dean's problem," she said.