WHERE DOES the withdrawal of Joseph Biden leave the Democratic race for president? Roughly where it was before. Neither Mr. Biden nor the six other Democrats (there will be seven Monday if Patricia Schroeder decides to run) who are now in the race have any solid base of support, with one exception -- Jesse Jackson. In Iowa, where the campaigning has been heaviest and the electorate most informed, The Des Moines Register went to the trouble of refiguring the results of its August poll of likely caucus-goers to see which candidate would inherit Mr. Biden's support. It found one candidate up 3 percent, two others up 2 percent and one up 1 percent. These are all changes within the statistical margin of error.
This remains a Democratic race with no strong favorite, no tiers, no dark horses and not much in the way of favorite sons (only one is from one of the 10 most populous states). You can get fairly wide agreement among experts that character factors will play an important role in voters' decisions. But the voters don't know all that much about the character of most of the Democrats in the race now. Extrapolating from today's polls is risky in a business where support for a candidate like Gary Hart can rise from the asterisk level to 36 percent in four or five days and evaporate just as quickly three years later.
Journalists do so much grousing about Democratic presidential campaigns that it's worth noting some of the things this Democratic campaign so far is not. It has not degenerated into a shouting match about irrelevant issues, nor has it seen a squalid bidding war for the support of what Democratic insiders call "the groups." Thanks to national chairman Paul Kirk's efforts to squelch all straw polls, it has not seen breathless contests to show who can bus more putative voters into the Squeedunk Township (Fire Hall) straw poll. It has seen -- though surely this won't last -- a certain good-fellowship among the candidates, as if they were all passengers on the same rockier-than-expected ocean cruise. The proliferation of debates -- two-candidate, multicandidate, bipartisan and all -- has enabled interested activists, voters and reporters to gauge the candidates' command of the issues and each other in circumstances of some relevance to the office they seek. It is possible that there have been better Democratic presidential contests. There have certainly been worse.
The candidates, it is true, have less awesome jobs and national renown than the Republicans' two front-runners, George Bush and Bob Dole. But everyone, or almost everyone, agrees that the appellation "Seven Dwarfs" was mean and misleading. For the moment, as the winnowing out proceeds, could we not, until Monday anyway, move on to something more uplifting -- say, the "Six-Pack"?