It's a wrap for Howard Dean's drive to be the Democratic presidential nominee. Unless the former Vermont governor has souvenirs of malodorous corruption in those famous sealed files from his gubernatorial stints in Montpelier, or once ran a version of Michael Jackson's Neverland in the Green Mountain state, he's got it all sewn up. Al Gore's endorsement earlier this week was only the icing on the cake.

            Dick Gephardt and John Kerry will wanly struggle on, but defeat stares them harshly in the face, in Iowa and New Hampshire and beyond. John Edwards and Wesley Clark are struggling. Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton and Carol Mosely Brown never stood a chance. Joe Lieberman's campaign is also on Death Row, with inmates kept awake at night by the Connecticut senator's plaintive bleats of betrayal by Gore.

            It may not be true that Gore failed to call Lieberman to alert him to the impending Dean endorsement. On one account of a senior aide in the Clinton-Gore White House, the Connecticut senator wouldn't take the call. Call or not, it was surely an exquisite pleasure for Gore to sign the death warrant for Lieberman's bid.

            How could Gore forget that Lieberman basically lost Florida for him in 2000 by conceding the phony overseas GOP ballots, the notorious "Thanksgiving stuffing."

            There never was any love lost between Gore and Lieberman, and more recent wounds still fester.

            When Gore was positioning himself as an anti-war candidate earlier this year, with a harsh onslaught on Bush delivered in San Francisco amid the run-up to the attack on Iraq, Lieberman was almost certainly instrumental in rounding up enough of Gore's former financial backers, many of them prominent Jewish-Americans, to privately notify Gore that they would not support him in a bid for the nomination this time around. Gore took himself out of the contention shortly thereafter.

            Some Republicans speculate that Gore's endorsement of Dean was made in the belief that the Vermonter is certain to meet defeat in November 2004 and that Gore is holding himself ready in 2008. But this may reflect wishful thinking on the part of many Republican strategists that Dean will be a pushover for Bush. He won't. As his blitzkrieg drive for the Democratic nomination shows, Dean is a very hard man to stop. He's put his foot in his mouth more than once, tangled furiously with Tim Russert and other poobahs of the national press elite. After each supposed setback he's rebounded with ever-greater strength. At this point, his primary campaign is set to enter the political history books as one of positively Napoleonic brio and timing.

            But Dean does face a problem, born of his early success. Assuming he carries the day in the early primaries, how is he to stay in the public eye all the way through to the Democratic convention in August? Suppose Dean is the effective Democratic nominee by Easter, then is he to assume the role of president-in-waiting, issuing portentous press releases about the issues of the day? Or is he to stay in the posture of scrappy challenger, cheekily whacking away at Bush on a daily basis. The press could easily grow weary of this, and Dean could be reduced to a spectral presence, yapping in the shadows beyond the campfire.

            Pondering Dean's looming dilemma, a veteran from Ronald Reagan's unsuccessful bid to seize the Republican nomination from Gerald Ford in 1976 recalled this week the tribulations of retaining the interest of the press. "The president can always get headlines. In terms of delegate count we weren't that far behind Ford, but he was always handing out highway contracts in Florida and other crucial states, and we had nothing to counter this.

            "Then we heard that Lou Cannon, who'd been following Reagan for many years, was about to write a piece in the Washington Post saying the Reagan campaign was all washed up. We had to seize the initiative. In advance of the nomination Reagan quickly announced that he was picking Senator Richard Schweicker of Pennsylvania as his vice-presidential running mate. That got us the headlines, and Cannon never did write that story, though Schweicker never did prise Pennsylvania delegates from Ford."

            Dean has already flirted with this tactic. Back in September, to modulate his peacenik image, Dean held well-publicized meetings with General Wesley Clark, with the suggestion that the commander in chief of the Balkan wars might be his running mate. Probably more than anything else this annoyed Dean's core supporters, irked that their man might be parleying with the man once accused by the British general Sir Michael Jackson of trying to start World War III by ordering him to attack the Russians at Pristina airport. So the Dean-Clark talks lapsed.

            But politics abhor a vacuum. For a while the pundits will gnaw on the bone of Dean's supposed political extremism. They will quote Al From of the Democratic Leadership Council, fretting that Dean has to run to the center. They'll savage Dean for his attacks on the WTO.

            The less Dean talks about the war -- and already he's trying to change the subject -- the more he'll have to talk about something else, like the economy. Now it's one thing to call for U.N. backing for the United States in Iraq, which is all the "peacenik" governor ever did. The economy is a different matter. The minute Dean opens his mouth to any consequence on serious issues like the minimum wage, or trade, or the World Bank, or corporate taxes, or redistribution, the pundits will be at his throat.

            My guess is that Dean, whose actual record is entirely centrist, will ride out the attacks. But there are long months ahead when it will be hard for him to hold the headlines and maintain some sort of initiative. As Prince Charles's career has shown, the leader-in-waiting can so easily become a somewhat wearisome and even risible figure.

            Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2003 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.