According to Zogby, Dean polls first in Iowa, New Hampshire, and -surprise- South Carolina.

Coming on the heals of a pseudo-surprise endorsement by Al Gore of Howard Dean, today’s Democratic debate promised to be interesting. Zogby polling data showing Dean with a lead in Iowa (by 4% over Gephardt), New Hampshire (by 30% over Kerry) and South Carolina (by 2% over Clark) only added to the fire and desperation of candidates beginning to crumble under the strain of the realization that they ain’t the guy who gets to challenge Bush.

Moderator Ted Koppel waded right into things by asking the candidates to raise their hands if they thought Dean could beat Bush. No takers, Dean himself excluded. After asking a couple candidates (notably Kerry) why they didn’t think Dean could get the job done, Koppel turned to the “issue” of Gore’s endorsement. After a lot of whining from those who wanted what they didn’t get, Kucinich rightly took Koppel to task for wasting time on a media hyped non-issue. Kucinich was right: The debate is no place to discuss endorsements, or process. That’s for know-nothing web site pundits like me. So let me start dishing.

Some say that Sen. Joe Lieberman’s campaign was mortally wounded by Gore’s endorsement of Dean. I say you can’t kill what’s already dead. Lieberman’s is a candidacy that, to the best of my knowledge, has found traction almost nowhere. Will he win a single state in the Democratic primaries? Perhaps not. Relatively few voters in the Democratic core are as conservative as Lieberman, so though he may have a base I think’s insufficient to get him much beyond February 3.

Dick Gephardt has some chance of being the anti-Dean candidate, though his base support derives from unions, and Dean’s already swiped several large endorsements which otherwise would’ve undoubtedly gone Gephardt’s way. He’s tried to differentiate himself from the field by touting a health care plan, but Dean’s got one too, and he’s a doctor. Gephardt polls well in the midwest but marginally elsewhere. If he doesn’t win Iowa, it’s trouble. I think he’s out relatively soon after February 3 as well.

John Kerry’s political supernova has provided some of the best entertainment of the campaign thus far. From pulling a Dukakis in the tank by riding a Harley onto Leno to gratuitous use of the f-word in a Rolling Stone interview, Kerry has lurched from one bad decision to the next. He’s opted out of public financing and his wife is rich, so he can keep things running as long as he wants, but if he’s going to lose every state through Feb. 3, I don’t think things get better from there. Last poll I saw had him even losing his home state of Massachusetts to Dean. Buh-bye.

Carol Moseley Braun had some classy things to say about the late Sen. Paul Simon during the debate. As usual she was pleasant and well-spoken. She has virtually no base of support and will be lucky to do much more than rehabilitate her image (which was badly tarnished during her last senate run). When will she drop out? She’s running everything on a shoe-string so she can almost stay in until the party throws her out of the debates for polling too low.

In that respect, Rev. Al Sharpton is in the same boat. He’s got a little more support in the African American community, polls a touch higher, and has won several debates through his witticisms and turns of phrase. He won’t win any states though, so it’s only a question of when he will drop out. Since he’d like to be a king-maker, it may be some time, and he could end up being a big thorn in the side if he refuses to exit gracefully.

I continue to think that Gen. Wesley Clark might make a fine veep choice for Dean. As a presidential candidate, Clark has the unfortunate quality of being almost as inarticulate on domestic issues as he is clear and commanding on military affairs. He polls relatively high in South Carolina and may be the “anti-Dean” candidate that Democratic naysayers are looking for.

Dennis Kucinich won this last debate in my view. Despite this, he’s way left of center in today’s political spectrum and though his supporters are fervent, he lacks broader appeal. He could drop now since he leads nowhere, but he may choose the liberal gadfly role and stick it out until the convention.

Sen. John Edwards is hopefully on a mission to acquire the skills he needs to successfully run a presidential campaign in a few years. He’s young and smart, but he carries the baggage of having voted to authorize Bush’s Iraq debacle and having co-written the much-maligned Patriot Act. That sinks his chances this time around with most hard-core Democrats. Out of the running after Feb. 3 unless he turns up a good showing in South Carolina.

The field should narrow after February 3’s primaries, when losses and lack of funds begin to really take their toll on campaigns. Will Gephardt or Dean win Iowa? If Gephardt loses, he’s probably done. If he wins, it may give him enough oomph in media coverage and donations to keep going. Who will finish second in New Hampshire? Barring catastrophe, Dean will win handily. Whoever gets number two there will likely spend the next week or so as the prospective “anti-Dean” candidate. I don’t think that will be sufficient to topple the Dean bandwagon but not knowing makes political races interesting.