NEW YORK, N.Y. -- For Democrats only: I think our field is shaping up quite nicely. Several of our candidates are starting to look promising indeed. Of course, only a political junkie would have sat through the entire two-hour debate, and the fact that there are 10 of them works against any one standing out. If the field isn't winnowed down soon, they might want to consider dividing themselves into two groups for a debate so we get more than these unsatisfactory soundbites.

            I think they ought to keep Al Sharpton in just for the entertainment value. Carol Moseley Braun is obviously the weakest link. But you know, guys, she wouldn't stand out so painfully as the only one who ever brings up women's issues if some of the rest of you did so occasionally, too. I really like Bob Graham, but for some reason he doesn't come across well. He voted against the Iraq war resolution, against the tax cuts and against confirming John Ashcroft -- a much higher profile in courage than several others in office. But even with all his electoral experience, he doesn't sound sharp.

            The real progressives are supporting Kucinich, and normally I'd be in the "Down the Drain with Dennis" camp myself. My unparalleled record for picking hopeless losers even extends to Republicans -- I always thought Dick Lugar would make a good president. However, common sense must occasionally assert itself.

            Joe Lieberman does nothing for me. That leaves Dick Gephardt, Howard Dean, John Kerry, John Edwards and Wesley Clark, a more manageable number. The general did OK, for a new guy, and he certainly has an interesting face and presence. His early slip on the banana peel of how he would have voted on the Iraq war resolution was a mistake no experienced pol would make. You could practically see Never Answer a Hypothetical Question tattooed on Clarke's forehead -- at least he's a quick learner.

            I have a weakness for old labor liberals, so I'm soft on Gephardt. We could always get him eyebrows, but he's been around a long time. Hard to sell a new Gephardt. Some think he's the tortoise in the race and will surprise us all in Iowa, but the all-your-eggs-in-one-basket strategy never struck me as sound.

            I'm also soft on John Edwards, who may be the best populist in the race. He totally gets that you can take on George W. on the economy, and he just hammers at it, with some good policy ideas, too. Like to see him stay in.

            But I suspect it will come down to Dean, Kerry and Clark -- always leaving room for margin of error and, as I frequently point out, anyone who would try to call a race this far out is a moron. I'm not that much of a John Kerry fan, so it sort of pains me to admit that I thought he came off best of all of them in the Pace University debate. If he keeps up that level of performance, I'll have to take back everything I've ever said about his having "no Elvis." I'd like to ask his advisor, Bob Shrum, if we can graft a sense of humor onto him.

            You can tell which ones the R's think are dangerous by the way they attack. They're pushing a storyline on Dean that the Washington press corps has bought into, big-time. That Dean is "thin-skinned" and "riles easily." There was much chatter on the chat shows about what was alleged to be a Dean show of temper over Gephardt's comparing him to Newt Gingrich. Aside from the fact that anybody would be insulted by being compared to Gingrich, I must say the alleged flash of temper didn't show much on television.

            As usual, the D.C. press corps is missing the point. If Dean has a temper, what about W., who becomes so defensive and testy whenever he's questioned his handlers can't even let him hold a press conference? Reminds me of the coverage in 2000, when the media decided the storyline was "Gore fibs" and "Gore exaggerates." In fact, Gore did neither (see the chapter on same in Al Franken's new book "Lies" or Joe Conason's "Big Lies"). Meanwhile, Bush was telling one whopper after another ("father of the Texas Patients' Bill of Rights" and other memorable stinkers), with almost no one in the media pointing them out. By now Bush has lied, distorted and misrepresented so much, Gore looks like Honest Abe (see my new book, "Bushwhacked").

            The attack on Clark also reminds me of an episode in 2000, the stupendously nasty whispering campaign about John McCain being a whacko. Remember all those charming anonymous quotes about McCain's "rages" and how "poor John" was a little loosely wrapped. (Naturally, I suspect Karl Rove.) What I have never understood is why the D.C. press corps lets itself be used like that. Anyone who has ever covered so much as a sheriff's race knows better than to buy into, "Strictly off the record, he beats his wife." So now we have Clark also being "thin-skinned" and "unable to get along."

            There is something so high school about the D.C. press corps. They love that stuff. The state of the nation seems secondary to them. If we want to talk about courage under fire, what was Bush doing on Sept. 11? No Rudy Giuliani he.

            All in all, I think we've got at least five possibles here and three strong candidates. I'm feeling positively optimistic.

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