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updated 1/19/2004 9:45:22 PM ET 2004-01-20T02:45:22

Tomorrow, a few thousand white people who live in Iowa get the chance to weigh in on which Democrat will spar with George Bush this fall. A week from Tuesday, thousands of other white people from New Hampshire will get their shot.

For weeks, we were informed by the media's political brains that this doctor who apparently has never known self-doubt, Howard Dean, had enthralled so many with his rage that he had a lock to win everything early. After all, hadn't he smartly outflanked the establishment guys from Washington, using anger and the Internet?

Now his lead in the cornfields has evaporated, and the experts are all over cable with their latest analysis: If Dean doesn't win big in Iowa, he could be declared dead.

Who knows? The whole process is a charade that seems to grow more expensive and obscene every four years. At least last time out, we had Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was as legitimate as it gets in presidential politics these days.

The Dean campaign has attracted many young people. They arrive at his events wearing smiles and idealism, and that's wonderful.

They seem to admire their man's passion more than his personality. And Dean speaks a language heard in coffee shops, groceries and suburban PTA meetings as he lashes out at Bush and his war in Iraq. His points are clear: The war is wrong. He's against it. The guys from Washington got suckered into supporting it.

This plays well in Iowa and in New Hampshire, where rallies are filled with partisans who want to beat Bush. But that goal - to win back the White House - might be Dean's weak link as he staggers through the January tests: Is he really the guy they want mixing it up with Bush this fall? Can Dean take a punch?

The Internet and his anger take him only so far. Eventually, Dean or another Democrat will have to stand on a stage and ask Bush the only questions that matter: Why did someone's son or daughter have to die in Iraq? What was so imminent about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein? Why couldn't we have waited? Why did you allow yourself to get talked into taking us to war?

This line of inquiry isn't political, it's common sense. It doesn't mean the questioner is unpatriotic or that Saddam wasn't a brutal killer and threat to the region.

It's just that the people left behind by men like Lt. Brian McPhillips; Pfc. Rayshawn Johnson of Brooklyn; Cpl. Bernard Gooden of Mount Vernon, Westchester County; Pfc. Wilfredo Perez of Norwalk, Conn., and so many others want to know why they had to die when they did. Sending Americans to war is the most important decision any President can make. Why did he make it?

But as these rustics and farmers gather in Iowa's caucuses and look toward New Hampshire's primary, it's as if their candidate shopping revolves around another question that lingers large: Can Dean look at the President and demand an answer to all of the above?

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