It was two in the morning when my phone rang. I could hear a lot of arguing in the background.

“Hello, Murphy … How much! You guys are all for sale, what’s your price? NAME IT!”

I’d never spoken to John Kerry before.

“Well, um, thanks Senator, but I’m a Republican and while I’m not exactly on the White House Christmas Card list, I support the president…”

A loud crash came from somewhere in the background.

“Gore… stinking RAT BASTARD!”

“THAT’S ENOUGH, JOE! GIVE ME THE BOTTLE! It’s all about INTEGRITY, remember? Jesus. Hello Mike? Now, back to business. I’m with the other guys in Gephardt’s basement, God help us, nothing but orange shag carpeting from wall to wall. How I ever got stuck in this mess with these sorry jokers is a Greek f**king tragedy let me tell you. ‘SHUT UP JOHN! If I hear another damn WORD about that MILL I’m gonna put a certified war hero ass kicking on you RIGHT NOW…’ um, sorry, Mike, anyway we’re all trying to come up with a plan because this New York con artist is going to take that Ben and Jerry’s Vermonter act of his and walk away with the goddamn nomination and… NO DICK, I don’t want a milkshake… and we better come up with a plan and come up with it quick to do something or we’re all toast… THAT’S MY WIFE KUCINICH! BACK THE HELL OFF!!”

I woke up. It was only a nightmare.

But with fewer than 40 days until Iowa’s caucuses the big question is can Dean be stopped? I think it will be difficult, but not impossible. The Gore endorsement was big because it ratified Dean as the de facto Democratic nominee. This is a mixed blessing for Dean. Suddenly the crushing levers of the expectations game are now aligned against him. But Dean still has powerful advantages to hold his superior position; he has the most money, momentum and an effective message. Saddam’s capture helps the President in the general election, but I doubt it will even dent Dean in the Democratic primary. What could stop Dean? A Backseat list of potential Dean-stoppers:

Dean’s Mouth. Dean badly needs an editor. He’s sloppy and with the stakes rapidly increasing a big enough gaffe ala’ Confederate pick-up trucks could hurt him badly.

Dick Gephardt. It is now in the vital interest of the other candidates that Gephardt beat Dean in Iowa. If Dean crushes Gephardt in that first contest, he’ll surge and be very hard to stop. Both Edwards and Kerry have dreamy ambitions about staying alive with third place showings in Iowa. But third place or even second place with a Dean first place will not put them back in the race, nor do anything to stop Dean. Gephardt is the only candidate positioned to put Dean off track.

John Edwards, by dropping out of the race now and joining with Gephardt to run as a ticket: Gephardt for President, Edwards for Vice-President. Combine money, South, Midwest. Dominate media coverage with big move. Win IA, place in NH, sweep through Feb. 3. Look at the list of primaries/caucuses in the 14 days after New Hampshire: AZ, NM, OK, MO, SC, ND, DE, MI, WA, ME, VA, TN: near perfect for a well-funded Gephardt/Edwards combination ticket chasing a wounded Dean.

What Would Stalin Do? Skip N.H.!?!? When you can’t beat the Panzers, retreat deep into your backfield to fight another day. It’s never been done before in a modern nomination but in a dramatic, and frankly desperate move, Edwards, Gephardt, Kerry and Lieberman could pull out of N.H. and make a big stand on Feb 3. Near impossible in the real world because it only works if everybody does it and all three of them think they can break through by coming in second to Dean in N.H. The problem is I don’t think second to Dean is worth much if he wins both Iowa and N.H. since this tight calendar lets a victorious Dean run the table.

The problem with these strategies is they require airtight cooperation between a bunch of wounded campaigns that ultimately seek to destroy each other. Each campaign wants to be the other guy to Dean, while hoping another opponent will do the heavy lifting and sacrifice himself to the benefit of someone else. Unlikely. Instead, each of them will try to get into a two-way race by coming in second or third somewhere. That’s not enough. Unless somebody actually beats Dean up front and has the money to exploit that opportunity, it won’t matter and Dean will triumph after Feb. 3rd. The best move? Easily the Gephardt/Edwards deal; it could work. Head over to Gephardt’s basement, fellows.