BY ENDORSING Howard Dean before a single vote has been cast, as he did on Tuesday, Al Gore has done Democrats hoping for a victory next November a true disservice.
The primary process should be a period of testing, of evaluation, of taking the measure of the candidates. It should afford Democratic voters time and opportunity to make a series of judgments about their hopefuls. It should be a winnowing process that sorts the long shots from the serious contenders -- and then lets the heavyweights square off in different states around the country to demonstrate their appeal.
That's hardly a perfect process, but it does give the party the best chance of selecting a nominee who will be a strong general election candidate.
At this point it's far from clear that Dean is that man. Indeed, for the last month or so his campaign has been less a smart political progression than a series of often amateurish stumbles.
Witness the Confederate flag flap. And the still-unresolved brouhaha over Dean's sealed gubernatorial records. And his dubious explanation for his apparent decision to disregard spending caps in the primary process.
Democratic foreign policy mavens couldn't have been encouraged to hear the former Vermont governor, in a Dec. 1 appearance on "Hardball," speak repeatedly of the "Soviet Union," as though that vast communist empire still existed. (Imagine if George W. Bush had misspoken in a similar manner.)
Meanwhile, Dean has trafficked cheerfully in conspiracy theories, offering up the idea that the Saudis may have warned the Bush administration in advance about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- and then in Tuesday's debate giving a misleading explanation about the context in which he made those remarks.
Now, as we've seen before, Dean's gaffes only seem to endear him to his (see-no-omens) supporters, binding them ever more tightly to their champion.
But the very real evidence of a candidate who is a few rehearsals short of a competent performance and still distressingly willing to shoot from the hip should give pause to Democrats serious about selecting the best challenger for November.
Then there are the other considerations that should be crucial for any party truly interested in retaking the White House. Questions such as: Does it really make sense to lead with your chin on raising middle-class taxes? And: Which candidates can show some appeal in the South? Having lost a disputed election he should have won handily as a peace and prosperity candidate, Gore, of all people, should understand the perils that confront a nominee who can't play in that region.
But by calling for Democrats to rally round Dean, Gore has tried to short-circuit the testing and vetting of the primaries. If, rather than triggering a backlash, his benediction helps Dean wrap the nomination up early by winning the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary and then steamrolling to victory on Feb. 3, it may mean that the race will never, for any appreciable time, narrow from a crowded field to the sort of two- or three-person contest that allows a true battle test of the candidates.
In that light, it's hard to say what was more risible about Gore's remarks: His claim that he respected the prerogative of caucus and primary voters or his suggestion to the other candidates that they should "keep their eyes on the prize" and eschew attacks on the front-runner.
Democrats with extraordinarily long memories may recall that in the 2000 race, then Vice President Gore had fallen behind mild-mannered Democratic rival Bill Bradley in New Hampshire. A beleaguered Gore responded by launching a demagogic attack on Bradley's proposal for near universal health care. Given that history, his admonition to the other Democrats essentially amounts to this: Do as I say, not as I did.
Credit the true leaders of the Democratic Party -- Bill and Hillary Clinton -- with striking the right wait-and-see attitude as they watch their party's candidates joust. Why? Perhaps it's because the Clintons understand the value of a nominating process that allows a hopeful to overcome adversity, display his mettle, and prove to voters, primary by primary, that he is the best candidate.
Now, it's altogether possible that the front-running Dean will do just that. But if so, his victory should come because of what he himself says and does -- and not because Al Gore, having run a wretched campaign in 2000, wants to set himself up as a kingmaker in 2004. Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is email@example.com.