BOSTON - In every primary election season, there is that electric moment when many candidates start jockeying for second place. This is celebrated by the media as a victory nearly as important as that amorphous goal of doing "better than expected."
So we approach the hour when an estimated 100,000 citizens will arrive at 1,993 rooms in Iowa to huddle and count. Pollsters say that Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean are vying for first place, Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina for third. But the Democrats already seem well on their way to winning second place. In November.
This has been the season of attacks and counterattacks of the sort that make Karl Rove smile. It got so bad at the final candidates forum that I surfed from Demolition in Des Moines to Sex and the City.
Most of the attacks have, of course, been directed at Dr. Dean, who was designated the front-runner before a hand was raised or a ballot was cast. He's been targeted by opponents and the news media alike for having risen out of nowhere-dot-com to be No. 1.
Weeks ago, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut made the angry remark that the Vermonter was in a "spider hole of denial" and then said Dr. Dean represented "anger." More recently, Mr. Gephardt attacked the former governor in a mailing that featured a Dean-as-perp photo under a headline: "Caught."
Add to that a Kerry spokeswoman who attacked Dr. Dean's record on nuclear safety, saying that he "is not fit to keep America secure in a dangerous world." Anyone who thinks the GOP hasn't stored that one has forgotten the ads about a polluted Boston harbor in 1988.
At this rate, the pro-GOP Club for Growth doesn't need to fund ads telling Dr. Dean to take his "tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont where it belongs." (Have they ever been to Vermont, a state with two Starbucks and a temperature that went to 7 below zero last week?) Heck, the Democrats are writing the attack ads for them.
I am not dubbing Dr. Dean the winner or suggesting that he's innocent of junkyard-dog-itis. When he labels his opponents as the Washington establishment, I'm not sure if he's running harder against the Democratic legislators or the Republican White House.
Indeed, the only double-digit candidate who seems attack-averse is John Edwards. And as a proper reward for staying upbeat, many embedded reporters - a bored reporter is a dangerous thing - seem to have decided that he's really running for vice president.
Everyone understands the traps of a hardscrabble primary with a clutch of candidates all struggling to stand out. But there's a huge disconnect between candidates and voters. The great hard core of Democrats has already picked their candidate: Whoever Will Win.
It's hard to find W. W. Win in any of the polls unless he's lurking under Undecided. The pollsters keep asking people whom they would vote for today, or which way they are leaning. But in everyday conversation, W. W. Win, an update of Anybody But Bush, is the true front-runner.
It's not that they aren't trying to figure out who would make the best president. It's that dyed-in-the-wool Democrats - the bluest of the blue tribe - have agreed with a fervor that I haven't seen in a long time that any of four or five of the contenders would be better than the man in the White House.
While the candidates are up on the big screen arguing about their policies, there's a subliminal crawl running through the minds of voters that looks like this: Howard Dean, authentic fighter or gaffe-prone? ... Wesley K. Clark, strong general or unready for prime time? ... John Kerry, experienced or uninspiring? ... Dick Gephardt, solid or stolid? ... and on and on.
The search for W. W. Win is most intense among core Democrats because they feel the country was duped into a reverse Robin Hood economy and double-duped into a war. In this atmosphere, is it any wonder that they can't get too excited about the marginal differences of health care plans or some gotcha contradictions from the past?
So off we go to Iowa, a state that Al Gore won by three-tenths of a percent, and then on to New Hampshire, a state Mr. Bush won by 1 percent. Most of these Democratic candidates believe with a pumped-up passion that they are the real W. W. Win. It's what fuels the 24/7 campaign. And it's how they justify attack ads.
But the Democratic voters want to keep their eyes on the prize. The November prize has got to be B.T.E.: Better Than Expected.
Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.