A group of Republican politico friends and I hold a semi-annual dinner where we eat big steaks and spin yarns about our past adventures in politics. “So Reagan turns to the Pope and says…” You get the idea.

This year’s cow slaughtering conclave was held last week. Inevitably the juicy topic of the Democratic nomination race came up. Our dinner had about a dozen attendees including a pundit, a wonk, a few Congressmen, some current and former White House aides and a Cabinet Secretary. Most have had extensive experience in national politics. Granted, this was akin to a group of Pepsi execs trying to predict the secret inner workings of the Coca-Cola company, but when we took an around the table straw poll on the likely Democratic nominee the result was surprising. Dick Gephardt won our poll easily, with Howard Dean second. Current front-runner John Kerry tied Joe Lieberman for last place with just one vote each. I was struck that Kerry did so badly and Gephardt so well. Some arguments from the voters at thetable:

The Congressmen thought the oft-repeated rap on Gephardt for failing to win control of the House was irrelevant to the presidential race. “He promotes himself very well,” said one. “That is a lot different than being in charge of a House campaign effort. He’s smart, tough and he’ll do well.” A savvy South Carolina poll was far more impressed with Gephardt’s South Carolina organization than Edward’s or Kerry’s, claiming “Gephardt has the key people.” Many were puzzled at the “loser in the fall” label Gephardt carries despite being the only top tier candidate from a vital swing state. Almost everybody thought that if the Democrat primary doesn’t lapse into pure anti-war mania, Gephardt’s meat and potatoes message will have traction.

The votes for Dean were based on the McGovern Again theory; anti-war passion candidate wins nomination. Plus historically Governors do well and Senators don’t. Comparisons to Clinton were made, another Governor with a good stage presentation and clever talk about balancing state budgets. Dean is sly; on the liberal issues with traction, he’s a liberal. On the moderate fiscal issues with traction, he’s a moderate. (I voted Dean because I think the race will boil down to Dean and one of the others, and as I wrote last week I think a longer war is better for Dean.) Kerry was universally panned. “Glass jaw the minute people start actually voting”, said one. “I know him, Dukakis without the warmth and charm”‘ said another. “Dead in the South”, growled the southerners. All were convinced that the fabled Ketchup Money, while now ruled out of the primary by Kerry, would return if he indeed becomes the nominee.

Edwards won the dubious distinction of being voted first to drop out, although that was before Edwards dropped this week’s big money bomb on the first quarter FEC report. I think Edwards’ outstanding fund-raising success will put him back in the race (plus rumors he’s courting Iowa savvy media consultant David Axelrod). Graham was un-mentioned. The sole Lieberman voter, while admiring the Senator’s courage on Iraq, grimly pondered Democratic primary reality and switched his prediction to Dean after a stiff drink.

A final theory held some sway over the table. Around Labor Day the junior Senator from New York looks at this Democratic field, examines the state of the economy and the President’s numbers, and then asks herself: “I can beat any of these clowns for the nomination. Do I go now, or 2008?”