You know the candidates have begun to seriously hate each other when they break out the D and T words. “I’m Disappointed in…, very Disturbing comments…, quite Troubled by…, a sad but Telling indicator”, etc. This D and T routine is a polite but completely transparent way to have a slappy fight while maintaining the patina of a statesmanlike focus on the important issues. It’s clear between the lines, however, that the whole field just glows purple with hatred for Howard Dean, with Team Kerry leading the way.

Dean has had the bad manners to outperform the rest of the field in the first couple of cattle shows. Granted, Dean has achieved this with buckets of cheap applause lines and the occasional cheap shot at the other guys. But it’s worked. Team Kerry, watching their beloved fortress New Hampshire crumble a bit, has decided to take a poke at Dean as “unfit” to be commander in chief. Wow, the U word. It’s quite a charge, and while arguably true in the face of Dean’s loopy remarks about Iraq, it looks clumsy and defensive to me. This lunge for the throat is more than just Kerry frustration. I smell a plot to grab the spotlight in tomorrow’s looming Debatenopolis in South Carolina. In order to discourage rent-a-mobs with noisy bullhorns from invading David Westin’s co-op lobby, ABC News is allowing the lunatic under-card of Kucinich, Sharpton and Braun to clog up the debate. That means nine candidates, each primed and prepped to jabber their heads off with nearly identical sound bites about hard pressed working families and why aren’t we investing as much in Detroit as we are in Baghdad, blah, blah. How does one break through in a crowded debate like that? Producing a silly prop which the candidate will inevitably hold toward the wrong camera and look like a dork? Pull a lame stunt like Bruce Babbit’s ouch-an-electric-eel-is-under-my-cushion “stand up” shtick from 1988? No, you need something better to grab the best 30 seconds of television, like a good two-way fight on the right issue. I figure Kerry started this spat on the eve of the debate with high hopes that Stephanopoulos will take the bait and rub the two of them together to for fireworks. Kerry can play his increasingly dog-earned war hero card and try to leave gallons of Dean’s blood on the floor over the important Presidential litmus test issue of national security.

Maybe Kerry will even go for an audacious NRA stooge versus war hero double decker with a smooth line about his experience being on the wrong end of VC assault rifles in Vietnam makes it – insert D word here, say “Disappointed” — to learn that his good friend Howard chose to be on the wrong side of the assault rifle issue as Governor of Vermont. Since Dean’s foreign policy background is limited to inspecting a few tollbooths on the Canadian border, he is indeed vulnerable. But Dean is a good counter-puncher and a big chunk of the primary vote shares his far out opinions on national security issues. We’ll see if Kerry can handle what he’s started.

Others will have a game plan as well; one sonorous candidate will try the blessed peacemaker strategy and drone on about “what we all agree on”. Gephardt will pound his crafty health care plan and possibly pick his own fight with Dr. Dean. Graham will take very, very detailed notes. My prediction? Dean proves the old “size of the fight in the dog” adage and bites Kerry’s thumb off to good reviews. But Sharpton mugs the entire room. Al plays by New York rules, which means no rules at all. He’ll gleefully heist the whole show and the others will let him because they’re too cowed by the mau-mau rules of Democratic politics to do anything other than laugh nervously and stare at their shoes. A big mistake. What if one of these serious candidates decided to turn to Sharpton and tell him with firm politeness that he has absolutely no business running for President of the United States until he apologizes for his central role in the sordid Tawana Brawley hoax. That would steal the show and prove to the country that one of these guys is tough enough to stand up to the next Saddam, let alone the Republicans. Hmm, telling the truth, taking a chance, and showing a spine? Sounds like Straight Talk to me…