Okay, let me elaborate on my reactions to Gore's endorsement of Dean.
And let me premise the following by saying that I don't think this is the only possible outcome, just the one that is more likely than any of the others I can see, given what we know now.
Gore's endorsement clearly helps Dean a lot. But it also helps Clark. In fact, I think it sets up a Dean/Clark dynamic in which the odds strongly favor Dean, but in which Clark still has real advantages.
Various thoughts lead me to this conclusion. But the chief reason is just a process of elimination.
Let's start with this.
Who's really still in this race? I think there are five candidates. Clark, Dean, Gephardt, Kerry and Lieberman. Edwards may not know it yet. But (pace John) he's no longer in the race.
As Koppel noted tonight, his standing in the polls barely distinguishes him from Sharpton, Kucinich and Braun.
Of those five, Gephardt and Kerry can be effectively knocked out of the race by losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively -- eventualities which now seem quite likely.
They're not toast. But they're in the toaster. Snuggly.
Lieberman isn't closely tied to success in either of those states. But his campaign has just never taken off. I'm not sure, frankly, whether the Gore thing really hurts Lieberman (except for personally). But that's largely because he was in such bad shape anyway.
Plus, Lieberman is the only major candidate in the race for whom there is a significant core of Democratic primary voters who find him an unacceptable nominee. Unlike Gephardt and Kerry, there's no totally clear cut reason why Lieberman doesn't end up contesting this with Dean. But I just don't see it.
(I actually like Lieberman. But that's just how it is.)
In any case, that leaves Clark.
Add to this two other factors.
1. Clark is raising money at a better clip than any of the other candidates beside Dean.
2. Clark has a clearer raison d'etre for his campaign than that of any of the other candidates, save Dean: namely, his national security credentials as a retired general. (You can tell his campaign sees this because Clark made this point explicitly tonight.) Many presidents have been governors with no prior foreign policy experience. So Dean's in good company. But it's a clear distinction between Dean and Clark in what is sure to be a general election fought heavily on national security issues.
As I said yesterday, I think Gore's endorsement of Dean will accelerate the process of narrowing this race to Dean and one or two other candidates. More likely than not, one. And, as I've argued above, I think various dynamics point to that other candidate being Clark.
This doesn't mean the other candidate is an "anti-Dean" in some heavily weighted sense, as both Dean's avid admirers and detractors tend to think. It is simply a reflection of the not-unreasonable reality that not every voter will gravitate to Dean. And as the field narrows, those voters will gravitate towards another candidate.
At the moment what I'm looking at is the increasingly narrow margin separating Kerry and Clark in New Hampshire. In truth, the convergence is as much Kerry's decline as Clark's rise. But it's both. And if Clark draws even with Kerry or pulls ahead of him that would further accelerate the process I've described above.
Of course, if Gephardt reverses the trend and wins Iowa that would change things substantially. If Kerry pulls out of his tailspin that would change things a lot too. But neither of those seems that likely.
The climb is an uphill one for Clark if what I've sketched out above transpires. Candidates who bag on the early primaries and then hope to come back swinging in the South or midwest never seem to pan out.
And Clark still has some wobbly moments. He's improved a lot over the last couple months. But it's not clear to me he quite yet has the ease and command in debate settings that he'll need in a narrowed down race.
(I watched about three quarters of tonight's debate. Clark's first answer was a bit shaky. The next few were strong. And he hit quite effectively on his national security credentials.)
If Dean were still clearly an outsider with the major party institutions arrayed against him that polish might not be so necessary. But the Gore endorsement combined with the AFSCME and SEIU nods changed the equation.
(For more on how Dean plays across the range of Democratic voters, see Ruy Teixeira's analysis of the new Gallup poll, particularly on Dean's disproportionate appeal to party liberals versus moderates.)
So, as I said, this contest has a lot of moving parts. And outside of New Hampshire and Iowa the primary electorate seems very much in flux. That's just, as I said, what seems to me as the most likely scenario given what we know now.