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Candidates vie over two kinds of Democrats

WASHINGTON

I ONLY SEE "GD" in the most average of the average spots, so I really wasn't surprised the other evening to see him hanging at Vinnie's up in Queens, sipping on a Bud, nibbling nachos, his not entirely natural threads wrinkled even when clean, worried as usual about his retired mom who scrapes by with three-quarters of her average income from Social Security. GD is average without effort, not an ounce of pretense, a political consultant's dream -- with John Edwards's hair, John Kerry's chin, Joe Lieberman's wit, Dick Gephardt's eyes, Wes Clark's shoulders, and he fairly exudes a hint of former governor of Vermont. The perfect look, however, masks a basically moderate person. Can't miss, this GD guy -- Generic Democrat -- if only he could get nominated.

Naturally, the Bush White House goes nutty at the mere mention of Generic Democrat. It is ridiculous, they say, to pit the president -- a genuine, breathing, regular guy -- against some glorified ideal. The fact that Bush has been losing in the polls to GD for months now has nothing to do with it, I am assured; Republicans are standing on principle and ethics here.

While the GOP fumes, few have noticed that Generic Democrat is beginning to stray from his role trying to block George W.'s reelection and has shown up in the contest for the increasingly worthwhile Democratic nomination as well.

In the media, the ink, the TV news time, and the buzz usually go at first to his cousin, "RD," almost always to be found in Manhattan. This guy is angry and passionate about whomping the Republicans next year, pretty much intolerant of the shades of gray that sometimes creep into politics. Real Democrat makes more money than his cousin, which makes his economic instincts on the conservative side, but his prosperity frees him to indulge his ideology, particularly about the rest of the world.

The two of them can argue quite vigorously about domestic issues -- they are, after all, Democrats -- but even in their vigor there is a tacit awareness that they each hit from the left side of the plate and that their policy differences don't touch on basic values.

In foreign policy, things can get much hotter, especially these days. Real Democrat was against invading Iraq from before the beginning; Generic Democrat was inclined to support it. Real Democrat shouts that the postwar chaos and violence prove he was right to oppose the war and prove Bush doctored the evidence to fool people like his cousin; Generic Democrat hates the chaos and the ongoing cost in lives and treasure, but he still believes it is better by far that Saddam Hussein's regime is toast.

Real Democrat is almost ready to adopt the slogan of Dennis Kucinich's fringe campaign, that the task now is to get the UN in and the United States out of the broken country. Generic Democrat is in favor of many more allies contributing many more troops and dollars so that we all can finally make this thing work.

In the press, the conventional wisdom going back to Vietnam has been that Real Democrat stirs his party's activist soul and that he has a built-in advantage in the early-voting states. Against that grain is the proposition that this wisdom helps explain George McGovern more than 30 years ago but that ever since Generic Democrat has usually been the dominant figure -- in good political years and bad.

Last week there was an opinion poll that actually shed light on this perennial tussle, underlining how fluid the race is at the moment. Taken by Stan Greenberg, Bill Clinton's guy in 1992, its horse race results in three early states (Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina) were interesting, but its value in analyzing the Real versus Generic struggle was more so.

In Iowa, Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt are neck and neck, with the always important third position up for grabs; in New Hampshire, Dean's advantage over fellow New Englander John Kerry remains substantial; and in South Carolina, next year's new wrinkle that symbolizes a slew of states that vote just seven days after New Hampshire, the initial advantage is shared by Gephardt, Clark, and Edwards.

The most interesting poll question, however, was about Iraq -- should the nominee be someone who opposed the war from the start or someone who supported the use of force but turned critical of Bush for failing to get international support.

In all three, the latter, more nuanced view (Generic) beat hard-core opposition (Real). The margin was 59-37 percent in supposedly liberal-dominated Iowa and 58-35 percent in New Hampshire (where a third of the sample is independent). Interestingly, the spread was closest, 50-41 percent, in South Carolina, where half the sample was African-American.

As always most of the Democratic would-be voters are concerned about the economy, and as many worry about Medicare and Social Security as are preoccupied with Iraq.

It may be that Dean merits the famous "front runner" label because of his astonishing fund-raising prowess. His political support, however, is less established. Generic Democrat is probably waiting to see if one of the other candidates (Clark, Edwards, or Gephardt) can figure out how to communicate with him.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com.

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