Seven little Democrats

Weighed into the mix.

One said, "Put a tail on me,"

And then there were six.

Six little Democrats

Trying to stay alive.

One was caught with stolen goods

And then there were five.

. . . One surviving Democrat

Grinning quite deliriously.

"Great job, Jess!" the party says,

"But seriously . . ."

Jesse Jackson has emerged as a front-running dark horse, a well-known enigma, whose consistent success in the polls has his party's leaders wondering what to do about him.

An ABC News-Washington Post poll reveals Jackson as the choice of 22 percent of the Democrats, well ahead of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, whose support stood at only 13 percent even before his campaign manager acknowledged having leaked the story that knocked Joe Biden out of the race.

The same poll projects Jackson as the likely winner of the "Super Tuesday" series of primaries that was instituted with the thought of boosting the prospects of southern moderates. Twenty-five percent of the Democrats in the 14 "Super Tuesday" states named Jackson as their choice, more than twice as many as chose runner-up Albert Gore of Tennessee. Dukakis managed only a fifth-place finish, with 7 percent.

Normally, the party would welcome the early emergence of a clear-cut front-runner. Instead of having the candidates continue to cut each other up in the primary wars, Democrats could rally behind their strongest prospect and focus their energies on the Republican opposition. But party leaders are convinced that Jackson cannot possibly win the nomination. Their nightmare is that he will show up at the nominating convention with just enough support to create chaos for the eventual nominee.

Interestingly enough, many Jackson supporters see it pretty much the same way, except that they envision not chaos but unprecedented black influence in presidential politics.

As they lay it out, Jackson will do reasonably well in Iowa; his solid base of black support will win the March 8 "Super Tuesday" primaries, and the momentum from that victory will have a snowball effect in the Midwestern primaries that follow. He would thus be in a powerful position to influence the convention slate and platform.

In other words, these supporters see Jackson running not to win the prize but to make a point.

But there are other Jackson backers who see no reason why their man shouldn't win the nomination outright. He has been working assiduously to expand his base of support beyond its black core, weighing in on such nonblack issues as international trade and the plight of the American farmer, and the evidence of the polls is that it is working.

Any white candidate with Jackson's solid base and consistent showing in the polls would be odds-on for the nomination, they argue; only blatant racism would dispose the party's leadership to look for a way of denying Jackson the nomination.

Well, not necessarily. The truth is that for all his demonstrated strength, Jackson still carries with him a pack of negatives: his lack of political and governmental experience, his difficulty in attracting big money, the continuing opposition of Jews, his seeming indecision as to whether he is running a movement or a campaign. But it is also true that one of the major weaknesses of the Jackson candidacy is the assumption -- in his party and in the media -- that he cannot win.

Maybe he can't. But why don't we just follow his campaign the way we follow the campaigns of other candidates, leaving the question of his electability not to party officials and media experts but to the voters themselves? It may just be that the real message of the polls is that American voters are, on the question of race as on so many other issues, away out in front of their leaders.