WASHINGTON -- Al Gore's dramatic endorsement of Howard Dean catapults Dean to prohibitive favorite because, according to conventional wisdom, it connects the outsider campaign to the ultimate insider. The insurgency gains access to the traditional centers of party power -- the unions, ethnic constituencies and big donors close to Gore.
This is all very true. But the special power of this endorsement is less structural than symbolic. The story of this campaign is the energy and anger of the Democratic base. It is the reason an unknown and undistinguished former governor of Vermont is now the front-runner. He bottled the anger.
The anger appears odd, given that George W. Bush is fairly mild-mannered. He is no Richard Nixon. Democrats did not hate him in 2000. Yet many hate him now because of 2000, because they believe his entire presidency to be illegitimate.
The Democratic base is agitated as in few other elections because of a burning belief that Bush stole the presidency. Then along comes Gore, chief witness to and, indeed, victim of the crime -- Dean introduced him at the Harlem endorsement ceremony as the ``elected president of the United States'' -- and declares that Dean is the one to carry the fight to depose Bush and vindicate the betrayal of 2000.
Gore's moral authority as the man who wuz robbed makes his endorsement unique. It is in fact an anointment. And who better to anoint than Dean, the man who has given expression to precisely the anger born of Gore's victimization.
From Gore's point of view, it is also a political masterstroke. After all, where was he? He was last seen in a hot tub on ``Saturday Night Live.'' He has since popped in and out of popular consciousness with the occasional speech, but he did not seem very content to spend his life as a visiting professor of journalism somewhere. The Dean endorsement, dramatic and unexpected, makes him a player again. A big player.
If he had waited a couple of months until Dean had already gathered irresistible momentum by winning the early primaries, it would have meant little. But by endorsing before the first vote is cast and thus making Dean the presumptive nominee, Gore becomes kingmaker.
It is good to be king. It is almost as good to be kingmaker. Gore makes himself consigliere, elder statesman, the James Baker of the Dean administration. And, if he wants it (Baker did), Gore just got himself the second-best job in America, secretary of state.
Assuming, of course, that Dean wins the presidency. The Gore strategy only works if Dean wins. The idea that Gore is now positioned for 2008 if Dean loses is fanciful. Political parties have little tolerance for people who lose even once, as Gore did inexcusably in 2000. But to be associated with a second loss -- one that gives Bush not just another term but historical legitimacy -- is unforgivable. It would be more liability than anyone could bear, let alone a man as charismatically challenged as Gore.
Is it over? Yes, except for one possibility. With the Gore endorsement, Dean has everything going for him. Not just money, but an Internet money machine. Loyal grass-roots troopers. Connection to the party establishment. A huge lead. A sense of inevitability.
Indeed, he is now leading for the first time in the national polls, not just in the two small states, Iowa and New Hampshire, that he has practically lived in for the last year and a half. There's the rub. Expectations are now as high as they can possibly be. He is expected to win -- win everything and win big.
If there is going to be another swing to the story line, there can only be one, and the media will hype it as much as they hyped his rise: ``Dean stumbles." A loss to Gephardt in Iowa would be huge news. Two polls have Dean with a 30-point lead in New Hampshire. Any rival who on primary day narrows the gap to single digits will be labeled the ``comeback kid,'' just as Bill Clinton ``won'' the New Hampshire primary in 1992 by finishing ``only'' eight points behind Paul Tsongas.
On the night he won the Massachusetts primary in 1976, Sen. Henry Jackson euphorically predicted he would win big in New York. He won by 13 percent. It was played as a defeat. He never recovered.
Howard Dean is no Henry Jackson. But he has yet to demonstrate that he has the resilience of Bill Clinton. True, he may not need resilience. There may be no bumps on the road to his nomination. But if there are any -- and if they come soon -- the fall could be hard.