If you set out to create the perfect Democratic presidential candidate, you would probably choose someone from the South or the border states, since John Kerry lost virtually the entire region on Tuesday, and someone who is comfortable talking the language of religion and values, since John Kerry was not, and someone whose wife is identified with conventional values, and, last, someone who took a very early position against the war in Iraq, which John Kerry did not. Such a person already exists and, as luck would have it, has a name: Al Gore.

I know, I know. It is much too early to start thinking of 2008, because we first must unite the country, confront our enemies and utter all the standard cliches. Nonsense. At a certain hour Tuesday night thoughts already turned to next time. In many of the blue states the name Hillary Clinton was uttered with frequency, and in others it was John Edwards (who has the right demographics). Not to my knowledge is anyone talking Gore -- not even, according to his friends, the man himself.

Still, you have to notice that either as a generic type of politician or a real one, Gore is what his party needs. He has relocated from Washington to Nashville, and he threw himself into the 2004 presidential campaign with commendable abandon. He endorsed Howard Dean, you will remember, but wound up campaigning for Kerry. Significantly, he was where Hillary Clinton, among others, was not -- against the war in Iraq. If the war continues, it will deepen as an issue, and Gore, as Gary Hart said about George McGovern, will be deemed "right from the start."

It is paradoxical that the Democratic Party, which is so beholden to Jews for energy, funds and ideas, has not looked into a mirror and noticed something odd. No matter how rich the Jewish community got, no matter how powerful, too, it continued to vote overwhelmingly Democratic. In other words, it voted against its economic self-interest, which would be lower taxes or, in the fantasies of Republicans, almost no taxes at all. This is the power of culture. Two, three generations out of the impoverished Eastern European ghetto, powerful and privileged beyond compare, most Jews still vote as if the Cossacks might come at any moment and the sweatshop boss might throw them out into the streets.

So it should come as no surprise that the power of culture -- the power of it to override or cancel out economic self-interest -- has become so prominent in American political life. The very fact that Ohio remained a battleground state to the end is a case in point. It had -- and has -- a weak economy. It has lost hundreds of thousands of jobs. Yet it seems that countless Ohioans did not vote their wallets but their cultural values -- 62 percent in support of an amendment banning same-sex marriage, for instance. The economy may be bad, but not so bad as the prospect of gay marriages.

From a Democratic perspective, what this country needs is a good recession. Barring that, the party needs a candidate who can be comfy talking religion and who, once that's established, can go on to talk about other things. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), once a key political aide to Bill Clinton, points out that both Clinton and Jimmy Carter had that quality. Clinton coined the klutzy term "new covenant" in his first campaign -- not catchy but freighted with biblical meaning. Carter proclaimed himself a born-again Christian and, amazingly, has spent a post-White House lifetime proving it. By establishing their cultural bona fides, they were able to move on to other issues. It was "the economy, stupid" only because Clinton first hurried home from the campaign trail to preside over the execution of a cop killer -- a jackpot of a social issue.

Back in July, delegates to the Democratic National Convention were asked whom they would choose in 2008 if Kerry lost. Twenty-six percent of them said Hillary Clinton, with Edwards the runner-up at 17 percent. It is always a mistake to discount Clinton -- or to ignore her spirituality. But she is blue where she needs to be red and North where she needs to be South and still and maybe forever more associated with scandal. The Democrats know what their candidate has to look like. They can see him, or someone like him, in the rearview mirror.

cohenr@washpost.com