A funny thing happened when the Deaniacs were asked to decide who they might want to back for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

The supporters of the 2004 presidential campaign of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean and their allies, who form the base of the Democracy for America organization nationally, have been participating in recent days in a poll to see whether a liberal “consensus candidate” can be identified.

It’s an online vote, certainly not a scientific survey.

But the voting so far has been revealing. The announced candidates for the Democratic nod are all pictured on the DFA website — www.democracyforamerica.com — and several of them have taken advantage of the opportunity offered them by the group to dispatch emails explaining their candidacies to DFA lists.

So who is winning as the contest heads toward its November 5 conclusion — a date that conveniently falls two months before Iowa Democrats will be attending what could well be definitional caucuses?

It’s not Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama; not even John Edwards, who has made a serious play for DFA support. It is not even Dennis Kucinich, the anti-war progressive who is arguably the candidate most in tune with DFA positions in global and domestic issues.

The front-runner is a write-in candidate: former Vice President Al Gore.

Here’s how the numbers looked as of Monday afternoon:

Al Gore (write in) 26499… 26.68%

Dennis Kucinich 23951… 24.11%

Barack Obama 18253… 18.38%

John Edwards 15065… 15.17%

Bill Richardson 5726… 5.76%

Hillary Clinton 4421… 4.45%

Other 2056… 2.07%

Christopher Dodd 1551… 1.56%

Joe Biden 997… 1%

Mike Gravel 814… 0.82%

Gore has maintained a lead for more than a week.

It is not likely that the recent Nobel Peace Prize winner will be lured into the race by an online poll. But his unexpected showing tells us two things:

1. Gore has genuine support among progressives. DFA poll participants had to go to extra trouble to write his name in and got no prompting from the group on the possibility of going for the former vice president and 2004 Dean backer. This suggests that, for so long as Gore teases about a race, former “Draft Gore” activists and their grassroots allies — who have stepped up their activism in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early caucus and primary states — will find support for their entreaties.

2. The Gore possibility is a serious problem for announced candidates who seek to position themselves as alternatives to presumed Democratic front-runner Clinton. DFA rules require that a candidate get more than 66 percent of the vote to earn an endorsement from the group, which maintains a reasonably solid infrastructure nationally and which serves as a useful bully pulpit among liberal Democrats. It is unlikely that Kucinich, Obama or Edwards could get to the 66 percent level even without the loss of 27 percent of the vote someone who isn’t even running. But with the write-ins going to Gore, there is little likelihood that any announced candidate will get near the numbers that are needed for an endorsement.

As such, Al Gore is actually helping Hillary Clinton. For so long as he remains a prospect, he blocks opportunities for other candidates to make their moves.