It's getting very difficult to pretend this is still a race.
Do we have to?
Well, sort of. Some sleuth, somewhere might dig up the ultimate John Kerry scandal. Or Candidate Kerry might soon commit the gaffe of all gaffes. Short of that, we're in the kabuki zone until the rest of the serious field -- that means John Edwards -- concedes.
Kerry's Shermanesque march through Virginia and Tennessee was a triumph, and not just for John Kerry. The Democratic Party strategists who concocted this compressed, front-loaded primary calendar have triumphed, too. They wanted to avoid a drawn-out, expensive cannibalistic campaign and it looks like they have done just that.
A calculated plan by the Democratic Party that worked? Now there's news.
The party elders are so committed to getting the dirty work of candidate selection over with that they're pressuring the remaining contenders to get out of Dodge fast. "At some point, perhaps sooner rather than later, I think Democrats need to unify behind John Kerry and refocus on winning in November," said Leon Panetta, Bill Clinton's chief of staff.
I think it's in the Democrats' own interest to have John Edwards stay in the race for a spell. It's probably good for the political news business. Besides, we're talking about a few weeks max. With stories on George Bush's National Guard service at the top of all the network news casts on Tuesday night, I don't think the Democrats need worry about Mr. Positive, John Edwards, cuttin' up Kerry too badly.
I happen to enthusiastically share the party's infatuation with the abbreviated, Mini-Me Primary. I just wish it all happened much closer to November. Imagine how fun all this would be if Election Day were just, say, two months off, not nine months away.
Nine months, for crying out loud. A full gestation period. How much speculation about the vice presidential selection can we endure? How long can the nation focus on Kerry versus Bush? This is cruel. It's usual. It's quite insane.
Yet even before this delightfully truncated primary session is officially over, we're hearing complaints that it's too short. And not all of them are from the Republican National Committee, which has already put Kerry in its crosshairs.
Two kinds of anti-front-loading agit-prop are floating around. The first argues that a long, grueling primary season is needed to properly test and vet candidates for the party's own good. The Associated Press' political reporter, Ron Fournier, wrote that the quickie primary is risky to Democrats if Kerry "escapes the nomination fight untested by a front-runner's usual pitfalls: gaffes, mini-scandals and buyers' remorse."
I can see Howard Dean making this argument, and he did: "Frankly, I've said before I don't think Senator Kerry's been vetted in the same way I was vetted when I was the front-runner. I think that's a necessary process because we've got to make sure that our nominee is the strongest possible nominee against George Bush." Come on.
Kerry has been campaigning full-time for a year, much of it as the front-runner back in the olden days of early 2003. He has been in public life for more than 30 years. He has been through three Senate campaigns. His 1996 race against a popular governor, William Weld, was famously tough. Dean, Clark and the RNC have been going after him for three weeks. That's not enough vetting?
There's also a virtue-crat argument that The People need more time to deliberate, debate and ponder their menu of great men. "The nomination season's compressed calendar and the choices made by the candidates themselves have combined since the Iowa caucuses last month to drain almost all deliberation and debate from the Democratic contest," Ron Brownstein wrote in The Los Angeles Times. "Because the schedule is so condensed, voters in each new state are being denied the time to make independent judgments on the candidates."
Again, this campaign didn't begin the day Iowans caucused. There have been 12 debates so far. That's not enough debating? Voters in Tennessee and Virginia have had three weeks since Iowa to shop, that's plenty.
For his part, Kerry has gathered overwhelming support from nearly every demographic group in states across the map. For their part, Democratic voters, at least right now, are united and excited about their man's prospects. A stunning 89 percent of Virginians told exit pollsters they are confident that Kerry can beat Bush.
This is a system that worked.
I think the problem we face is not too little campaigning. It's too much campaigning. Government, which now resembles campaigning anyway, will be nearly frozen this year except for routine appropriations and closed-door investigations. Will nine more months of electioneering inform voters so profoundly that it's worth taking the year off? Nope. It's a turn-off.
We don't need nine more months to conduct this election. Most Western democracies take about six weeks for their elections. America is geographically large and multiethnic. We could get the whole thing, primaries and general, done right in three months, four tops.
Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, has covered politics and government in Washington for 20 years and has won the Investigative Reporters and Editors, Alfred I. Dupont, and Society of Professional Journalists awards for investigative journalism.
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By Dick Meyer