For the last week the 100 or so party operatives, rival campaign staffers and beltway journalists who together comprise the central nervous system of Democratic conventional wisdom have been cackling over cell phones and emails about how awful Howard Dean was on “Meet the Press.” Meanwhile, Dean is busy running circles around his heavy hoofed competition and is well on his way to heisting the nomination.

This is an old story in presidential primary politics. Senators entering the race for President get all the attention and hype in the pre-season. The media and party poobahs they talk to are a DC crowd who get far more excited over the local talent than about some yahoo Governor from the sticks. Ponder for a moment that vast bone yard of failed presidential primary campaigns, each pumped up early as a smart money choice. It’s loaded to the brim with Senators; Gramm, Muskie, Bayh, Jackson, Glenn, Harris, Baker, Cranston and even Congressmen—think Kemp, Crane, Udall and Schroeder. All of these campaigns excited plenty of DC smart guys, got plenty of media hype only to fizzle out.

Meanwhile, governors like Carter, Reagan, Dukakis and Clinton did well. Howard Dean suffers from more than the usual Senators First humbug. Much of the press elite actively dislikes Dean, not to mention the pure malice felt toward him by most of the other candidates’ staffs. I suppose this is for three reasons. First, Dean is running against Washington and the Washington types can’t stand that. Second, the good Dr. Dean likes to cut. He doesn’t play nice and he’ll dive for cheap applause at the drop of a hat. Third, and most painful to the others, Dean’s campaign to date has been far more effective than anyone else’s.

Those who hold conspiracy theories about this column — a sneaky GOP plot — will gripe that I am building up Dean to saddle the Democrats with a sure loser nominee. While that would be fun, it also means I’d spend the next five years listening to the White House crowd gloat about how they brilliantly defeated Howard Dean armed with only their smarts and a mere 200 million dollars. No doubt Dean would be a weak nominee — his “Meet the Press” appearance was pure manna from heaven for those busy note-takers in the RNC basement — but I’m calling it as I see it. Dean grabbed the spotlight with his anti-war rhetoric months ago and he has managed to hold on to it. Dean is the only candidate rising meaningfully in early state polls. He is raising decent money. He has the heat in the race; love him or hate him he is the candidate people are talking about.

His anger shtick is selling; Democrat primary voters want a Bush-Fighter. The others are lagging behind. Sure, they can tell you how they are going to win, but they aren’t doing it. Show me any triple, let alone home run, hit to date in this race by The Official Invincible Front-Runner Kerry. Explain to me how Graham gets nominated. Is Edwards still in the race? Where is Gephardt getting stronger? Where is Lieberman’s money? I think this race will boil down to a two-man contest of Dean versus one of the others. Dean has many weaknesses that could cost him the eventual nomination in the decisive vortex right after New Hampshire. Dean’s political experience is pure small time, limited to Vermont. He makes rookie mistakes. He wings it and he’s undisciplined; a one-man show whose operation has shown a true lack of policy depth. The media will want to hammer him.

Whether or not Dean, Inc. can successfully drink from the fire hose of increasing success is the big question. And a snarling Stop Howard movement is now well afoot, with means, motive and plenty of murderous intent. The heavily front loaded primaries gives Dean’s early state strategy a real shot. (I think my pal McCain would have been nominated under this calendar in 2000.) The Stop Howard crowd better get their collective heads out of comfortable DC conventional wisdom and back into Iowa and New Hampshire and fast. Or it’ll be free drinks for everybody at the RNC.