WASHINGTON - A remarkable aspect of the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination is how little difference exists on domestic issues among the principal candidates who have survived so far. It is a fact that bodes well for the party's prime objective of sending President Bush back to Texas in November.
The chief intramural argument on Mr. Bush's tax cuts is whether they all should be thrown out, as former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont contends, or only those on annual incomes of more than $200,000, as the other leading candidates advocate.
On foreign policy, Dr. Dean again stands out from the other principal contenders by reminding voters he opposed Mr. Bush's war resolution. But all of them agree that the president seriously erred in making an end-run of the United Nations and has botched the aftermath of the invasion.
After a round of negative campaigning in Iowa, principally by Dr. Dean and the usually bland Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the contentious tone of the Democratic campaign has generally been softened. Sen John Edwards of North Carolina, conspicuously avoiding attacks on the other candidates and pinning a rose on himself for doing so, has made "going positive" a major argument for voter support.
The desperate Dr. Dean, meanwhile, has continued to campaign with a vengeance against front-running Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, though his aides describe his TV ads on issue positions as merely "comparative" or "contrasting."
All this enhances the prospect for Democratic unity once the nominee is effectively known. This is especially so if Mr. Kerry manages to beat Mr. Edwards, retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark or both in today's primaries in Tennessee and Virginia, countering their argument that only a Southerner can win in Dixie.
In Mr. Kerry's first opportunity to undercut the two Southerners in their own home ground last week, Mr. Edwards in South Carolina and Mr. Clark in Oklahoma both beat him. Even if Mr. Kerry comes up empty in Tennessee and Virginia, however, the lead he has already built in national convention delegates will not shake his front-runner status.
But if either Mr. Edwards or Mr. Clark, or both, bests Mr. Kerry somewhere today, the question becomes whether in a more competitive climate, especially in a one-on-one match-up, niceness will become the inevitable campaign casualty. Mr. Edwards, however, can't afford to take the low road at this point, and Mr. Kerry will remain so far ahead that there's no reason for him to do so.
Victories by Mr. Kerry in Tennessee and Virginia would undermine the subplot that either Mr. Edwards or Mr. Clark will emerge as the remaining realistic alternative to Mr. Kerry for Democratic voters. This prospect assumes, as polls suggest, that Dr. Dean's declared last stand in Wisconsin will fail.
The former Vermont governor, who assured his Iowa supporters in his now infamous post-caucus speech that he would persevere through the remaining state primaries, has faced reality in making the Feb. 17 Wisconsin primary do-or-die. The liberal, blue-collar and farm state is as good a place as any for his last test.
Mike Tate, Dr. Dean's Wisconsin campaign manager, told reporters in a teleconference over the weekend that up to 13,000 canvassers will work the state and that enough new money has come in to enable the campaign to air ads in TV markets across the state.
Steve McMahon, Dr. Dean's new national campaign manager, says of Dr. Dean's prospects to put his candidacy back on track: "We think that after some of the dust has settled, we'll be given a second chance." A biographical ad of the sort that is usually aired at the start of a campaign is running in Wisconsin, he says, to remind people why they liked Dr. Dean at the outset, before his defeats in Iowa and afterward.
With Dr. Dean not competing actively in Tennessee and Virginia today, he will go into Wisconsin with a dozen losses and no victories. Attempting to stop Mr. Kerry's steamroller without "going negative" seems a next-to-impossible task. But doing so might at least allow the fiery Vermonter to make a small contribution to the unity the Democrats need to beat Mr. Bush in November.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column usually appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.