Howard Dean was the first to tell the joke. "I ran into Al Sharpton at the restaurant in New York recently," the former Vermont governor said during a NARAL Pro-Choice America dinner at the Omni Shoreham Tuesday night -- the first time all six of the Democrats running for president appeared together. Sharpton, Dean said, "asked me to be his running mate."

The crowd broke into polite, knowing chuckles, just as it did a few minutes later when Sen. John Kerry said he would be "having words" with Dean, because Sharpton had offered him the job four months ago.

At another cattle call for presidential candidates two nights later -- before a group of Democratic mayors at the Hilton Washington -- came this: "Reverend Sharpton and I were on the same shuttle from Washington to New York," Sen. Joe Lieberman said. "And he offered me the vice presidency."

The 2004 campaign has its first running gag. This nifty icebreaker is, of course, predicated on the absurdity of its premise: that Sharpton, the firebrand civil rights activist, would ever be in a position to choose a vice presidential running mate. Sharpton dutifully smiles and plays along. "We're just being jovial," he said in a brief interview after his speech to the Democratic mayors. "Just joshing." He says he does not find the humor patronizing.

Yet, within a week, three of Sharpton's competitors saw fit to tell the same joke. And not one has made a joke about offering Lieberman another chance to be vice president. While the gag is grounded in real events -- Dean and Lieberman did have these actual chance encounters with Sharpton -- the repetition of the running mate conceit signifies the awkward dance Democrats are attempting. It also serves the purpose of making the candidates seem at ease with Sharpton even while they tacitly belittle him.

"The more of a joke this is, the less of a threat Sharpton becomes," says Ronald Walters, the deputy campaign manager for Jesse Jackson's presidential race in 1984 and the director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland.

To be fair, presidential candidates always jokingly ask their opponents in the primaries to run with them -- as vice president. And convention requires that the candidate who is offered the job must demur for fear of appearing too comfortable in a subservient role (at least until they're actually offered the job).

But the spirit of Dean, Lieberman and Kerry's remarks were ersatz flattery -- as in, Al Sharpton has deemed me worthy -- which is not a way serious candidates ever address each other. It is a form of special treatment, one that sidesteps the unspoken cacophony of Sharpton's dicier associations (see "Brawley, Tawana").

"There's an awkwardness here, but that can be healthy, too," says former senator Paul Simon, a Democratic candidate for president in 1988. As Jackson's did in 1988, Simon says that Sharpton's presence can spur Democrats to push a social agenda that some of the candidates would otherwise avoid. "I think it's healthy to have people running who keep us sensitized to people who are less fortunate in society. The problem is, these candidates need to raise money. And the people who contribute are not the people who can't pay their hospital bills."

Still, that coexistence brings agonizing theatrics. Traditionally, if a candidate is asked if he will support the party's nominee, even if it's his opponent, the answer is easy: There's nothing more important than defeating (the other party's nominee). Of course I will endorse him.

But with Sharpton in the equation, Simon says he'd probably say something like, "Oh, we'll have to wait and see." He giggles slightly. "I think you'd get a duck on that."

To wit, the question brought the following responses from the current campaigns:

Sen. John Edwards: "Let me check around and get back to you," says spokesman David Ginsberg. ("Senator Edwards will support the eventual nominee," he said in a later phone message.)

Rep. Dick Gephardt: "I'll call you right back," says spokesman Erik Smith. (Gephardt will also support the nominee.)

Lieberman: "I doubt anyone will want to talk," says spokesman Dan Gerstein. (In a later conversation, he says Lieberman will support the eventual nominee, but it's a moot point because Lieberman "intends to be the nominee.")

Spokesmen for Kerry and Dean said they would call back with an answer, but hadn't done so by last evening.

And when Sharpton is asked if he'll support the eventual nominee, he himself shrugs. "I want to hear what they have to say," he says, smiling impishly down at his shoes. The dance is on.

Above, Democratic hopefuls John Kerry, Howard Dean, Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman, Al Sharpton and John Edwards; left, Sharpton after filing with the Federal Election Commission on Tuesday.