Tout Sheet for 2004 Democratic Race
  by pony playing Gene Lyons

     Serious people dislike horse-race political coverage.  Apart from cable-TV spectacles like the Kobe Bryant trial, nothing's more
 mindless than handicapping presidential campaigns. Alas, high-mindedness tends to be self-defeating in American politics. Besides titillation
 at hearing words like "panties" on TV, people follow celebrity trials for the same reason they watch ballgames: to see who wins.

      George W. Bush can certainly be beaten. A recent ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll shows him leading a generic Democrat
 just 48-47, within the margin of error. Only 47 percent approve of his handling of Iraq; 51 percent disapprove. Even larger majorities
 disapprove of Bush's record on the Federal budget, taxes, health care, Social Security, etc. Most Democrats would see his election
 (I almost wrote "re-election") as a national catastrophe. A Marist poll shows 44 percent of registered voters definitely planning to
 vote against Bush; only 38 percent definitely supporting  him.

      But you can't beat somebody with nobody, and right now only party activists are paying attention to the contest for the Democratic
 nomination. Polls also reveal that many have no idea who's running nor what they stand for. True, this is partly due to the congenital sloth
 and ignorance of American voters, a taboo subject pundits avoid, both because it insults the customers and diminishes our own self-importance.

      But public indifference also results from the perception that the Democratic contest makes for lousy TV. A recent debate on CNN
 drew a 1.8 share, right down there with "World's Strongest Man" contests and infomercials on The Shaving Channel. With nine candidates,
 there's no possibility of real debate, and the entire exercise is contaminated by fakery. Every minute spent gravely attending to Dennis Kucinich
 or Carol Mosely-Braun is a minute better spent channel surfing for a beer ad with cute babes.

      Nationally, only four among the Democrats poll in double figures: Howard Dean, Wesley Clark, Dick Gephardt and Joe Lieberman.
 Dean leads with a paltry 17 percent. But the most striking figure in the ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll is that 76 percent of Democratic
 voters say they might change their minds; 53 percent say they probably will.

      Of course the race isn't being held nationally, or even state by state in the ordinary sense. What hasn't yet sunk in among journalists
 covering the race is the likely impact of the amazingly complicated rule changes the party has imposed on itself for 2004 in the interest
 of "fairness." Massive confusion appears likelier. There are no winner-take-all primaries. Instead, delegates will be awarded proportionally
 to all candidates receiving more than 15 percent of the vote in each congressional district, from sea to shining sea.

      To be nominated, a candidate must win a majority (2160) of delegates to the June convention. Given that there are 796 party-appointed
 "superdelegates," to lock up the nomination before the Boston convention, somebody has to win 61 percent of the elected delegates in a nine
 candidate field over two short months between February and early April 2004. Given strong regional differences and favorite son candidates,
 the odds of a deadlocked and/or brokered convention appear extremely high.

      Would that make for good TV? Maybe. Or it could degenerate into farce, perpetuating the notion that Democrats are too ineffectual to govern.
 Anyhow, in the interest of generating a little buzz, I asked e-mail pals across the country whose opinions I respect to give me simulated pari-mutuel
 odds on the Democratic race as if it were being held at Churchill Downs. Then I ran them through a kitchen blender and came up with a tout sheet:

      Here's how it looks:

     *Howard Dean: 4-1. Early speed in Iowa, neighboring New Hampshire. Fades in South Carolina, Oklahoma, Missouri on Feb. 3,
 Virginia & Tennessee on Feb 9. Anybody-but-Dean sentiment rises in backstretch.

      *Dick Gephardt: 6-1. Strong in Iowa, wins native Missouri, union-dominated Michigan on Feb. 7, but could be out of the money
 before Super Tuesday, March 2.

      *Wesley Clark: 5-1. Must finish third behind New Englanders in N.H., win in S.C., Virginia, Tennessee. Needs to act more like
 general, less like henpecked sitcom Dad.

      *John Kerry: 12-1. Must do better than expected in Iowa and N.H., or pressure will build for him to pull up by mid-March.

      *John Edwards: 30-1. Dynamite in the paddock, weak on the track. Must defeat Clark in early Southern contests to remain viable.

      *Joe Lieberman: 50-1. Unpopular with Dem bettors due to no show in 2004 Cheney debate, softness during Florida debacle.

      *Al Sharpton, Carol Mosely Braun, Dennis Kucinich: 1000-1. Clear the track for the real horses, you fools.

      *Hillary Clinton: 100-1. A sucker bet. Dream on, Karl Rove. She ain't running.

      *Al Gore: 10-1. The Washington press would hate it, but Honest Al could plod home a winner in the event of a nine horse
 pileup on the clubhouse turn.

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