AND then there were three. Or five if you count "vanity" candidates. Or maybe only one if the numbers are all that matters.
Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark dropped out of the Democratic presidential nomination race this week after defeats in two southern states where he had hoped to do well, partly on the basis of his own claim of Arkansas as his home state.
Sen. John Kerry won convincingly in both Virginia and Tennessee, the Tennessee that native son Al Gore didn't take in 2000. Sen. John Edwards, from North Carolina, didn't finish first in either, as he had hoped given his regional orientation, but did take double-digit second places in both states.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Rev. Al Sharpton again finished with tiny numbers. Both should get out of the way. Rev. Sharpton's campaign is also raising increasingly embarrassing financial accounting issues. His initial role when there were 10 candidates was useful, probing, and provocative. But not now.
When General Clark entered the campaign, later than the others, he looked to be an interesting candidate. He brought a rich national security background and the respect that correctly goes to a decorated Vietnam War veteran who also commanded the American force effort in Kosovo.
Given that the run-up to and the conduct of the current war in Iraq will be an important issue in the presidential campaign, Democrats could have found him to be an attractive candidate.
His case was also helped by the fact that as an Arkansan he could have offered regional balance to a ticket headed by a Northeasterner - former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont or Senator Kerry of Massachusetts. Cutting the other way, it could also be that Americans feel they have had enough of Arkansas after eight years of President Bill Clinton.
In any case, General Clark in the end didn't quite cut it with primary and caucus voters across the country, despite the fact that his fund-raising went fairly well. His military background probably both helped and hindered his candidacy. On the one hand, it brought him a lot of respect. On the other, it may have made some Democrats skittish to contemplate a nominee who was a military careerist.
The rest of the campaign and General Clark's long-term role in American politics, if any, remain to be seen. Senator Kerry seems to be within more than shouting distance of grasping the Democratic nomination, even though big primaries still remain March 2. Governor Dean has put a lot of stock in the Wisconsin primary next Tuesday, although we fail to see just why that contest is so important.
Whoever wins the nomination then has to choose a vice presidential candidate. Among Senator Kerry's competitors, the somewhat fresh, upbeat Senator Edwards, who would bring regional balance, seems to be a better bet than General Clark.