George Will

Considering that 34 congressional districts now held by Democrats voted for Bush in 2000, many Democrats fret about a ticket headed by Dean. But by now Democrats may be stuck with him because nominating him might be the least ruinous option. Not nominating him could give Democrats in 2004 a year akin to 1912 for the Republicans, when a seriously annoyed Republican, Teddy Roosevelt, ran a third party candidacy and finished second (behind Woodrow Wilson), ahead of the Republican nominee, who was the incumbent president, William Howard Taft.

Dean's dash from obscurity to dominance in the Democratic nomination contest may be the second-most impressive example of spontaneous political combustion in living memory. But consider what it is second to: George Wallace's 1968 achievement of getting his name on the presidential ballots of all 50 states.

Wallace had no new mobilization marvel like the Internet. And in 1968, many state laws, reflecting the two major parties' desire for an electoral oligopoly, were formidable barriers to ballot access for third party candidates. Ohio required the prohibitive -- or so it reasonably assumed -- number of 433,000 signatures. When Wallace supporters got about 100,000 more than that, an Ohio court declared Wallace's party ``fictional'' because, the court said, real parties develop from the bottom up. But that was precisely what was happening before the court's closed eyes. The U.S. Supreme Court sided with Wallace against Ohio.

California required only 66,000 signatures -- but signers had to fill out a two-page legal-size form to register as members of Wallace's new American Independent Party. More than 100,000 did.

A consequential third party candidate needs at least one of three things: a single burning issue, a vivid personality or a regional base (to facilitate a breakthrough in the Electoral College). Wallace had all three. Dean, a George Wallace for the campuses, lacks only a regional base (faculty clubs do not constitute a region).

Does Dean seem like the sort who might lose the nomination with a gracious smile and a graceful quip and retire to Vermont to practice medicine? By leading his true believers out of the Democratic Party and running as an independent, he might win more votes than the Democratic nominee. By now, the Democrats best option might be to take their medicine -- the doctor -- however bitter.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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