DES MOINES — When the Rev. Al Sharpton tore into Howard Dean’s minority hiring record during Sunday’s Iowa Black and Brown Forum debate here among the Democratic presidential contenders, Carol Moseley Braun moved immediately to defend Dean. As soon as Sharpton finished pressing Dean to explain why he had not appointed more people of color to top positions during his long tenure as governor of Vermont, Moseley Braun urged the other African-American candidate to tone down his criticisms. “The fact of the matter is, you can always blow up a racial debate and make people mad at each other,” she said, in what amounted to a public rebuke for Sharpton. “People cannot afford a racial screaming match.”

At the time, Moseley Braun’s intervention sounded like nothing more than one of the grace notes she regularly added to the debates between the Democratic contenders. Though her campaign never had the money or the organization needed to be a serious competitor — even her own campaign manager acknowledged that she would not win the nomination — the former US Senator from Illinois and US Ambassador to New Zealand won consistently high marks for her command of the issues and for her determination to keep the contest focused on the task of beating George W. Bush.

While the defense of Dean last Sunday was in character for Moseley Braun, who has often played a peacemaker role during the campaign, it also provided an indication of Moseley Braun’s regard for the man who once shared her low poll numbers but then took off to become the race’s presumed frontrunner. Behind the scenes, that regard was flowering into a decision by Moseley Braun to fold her campaign and make a high-profile endorsement of Dean.

According to aides to Moseley Braun and Dean, the former senator took the former governor aside after Sunday’s debate and indicated that she was thinking about dropping out and throwing her support to Dean. It was a good fit ideologically, as the two candidates have taken similar stands against the war in Iraq and the Bush Administration’s economic agenda. And Moseley Braun has noted the success of Dean’s efforts to attract support from leading political figures in the African-American community.

Conversations between the two candidates continued over the next several days, leading up to Moseley Braun’s decision on Wednesday to leave the race. On Thursday, she flew to Iowa to appear with Dean at a rally on his last major swing through the state before Monday’s first-in-the-nation caucuses. Asking her backers to instead stand with Dean supporters at the caucuses, Moseley Braun declared, “Governor Dean has the energy to inspire the American people, to break the cocoon of fear that envelopes us and empowers president Bush and his entourage from the extreme right wing, and he has a program to put our country back on track to tax fairness, job creation, balanced budgets and an economy that works for everyone regardless of sex or race. He has the experience to know that state and local and national government have to cooperate and collaborate, and end the destructive game of monetary musical chairs that creates unfunded mandates and failing schools. He understands that a real war on terrorism starts with putting the domestic security of the American people first. He can “work well with others” around the world and craft a foreign policy that is neither arrogant nor preemptive, but that begins with respect and builds on alliances. He takes seriously our stewardship of the planet and our environmental responsibilities.”

For his part, Dean was full of praise for Moseley Braun. “She’s a principled person. We just hit it off. I like her a lot,” he told reporters as he finished the first leg of a statewide bus tour of Iowa that he hopes will help him prevail in the caucuses that kick off the process of selecting the delegates to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Dean is locked in what looks to be an increasingly tight four-way race in Iowa, with a new Reuters/MSNBC/Zogby Poll showing him in a statistical tie with Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and North Carolina Senator John Edwards – the poll has Kerry at 22 percent, Dean at 21 percent, Gephardt at 21 percent, and Edwards at 17 percent, with a 4.5 percent margin of error.

Dean declared that the Moseley Braun endorsement was “going to be a big help to us.” On the face of it, that sounds like an empty boast. Moseley Braun has little organizational strength in Iowa, and has only been polling at around 1 percent there. However, in a race as close as the Iowa contest appears to be, it certainly will not hurt Dean to gain the support of the only woman and one of only two African-American contenders in the race. At a point when many Democrats in Iowa are trying to determine which candidate would be the strongest contender nationally, the Moseley Braun endorsement serves to highlight the significant support Dean has attracted from members of the Congressional Black Caucus and other prominent players in states where, unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, support from African-American voters is critical to winning not just the nomination but the presidency.

Beyond Iowa, Moseley Braun’s endorsement could help Dean as he continues to line up support among core constituencies of the party. Moseley Braun, who promised to take the “Men Only” sign off the White House had the endorsements of the National Organization for Women and the National Women’s Political Caucus; her exit may free up support for Dean from some feminists who had held back from making a public endorsement while there was still a woman in the race. Additionally, Moseley Braun retains better name recognition in her home state of Illinois than a number of the Democratic contenders. While there were few predictions that she would win the March 16 Illinois primary, Moseley Braun could well have attracted her largest measure of support on her home turf, especially in the predominantly African-American precincts of Chicago where she has been politically active for three decades.

With the former senator now backing the Vermonter, and with endorsements of his campaign rolling in from prominent Illinois progressives like US Representatives Jan Schakowsky and Jesse Jackson Jr., Dean’s prospects are looking better and better in Illinois, which will hold one of the last big contests on the road to the nomination. If the Democratic competition turns into a long haul, the late-in-the-game primary in Illinois–which will send one of the largest delegations to the Democratic National Convention in Boston–could prove to be a significant test. And it is there, as much or more than in Iowa, where Moseley Braun’s endorsement could turn out to be the “big help” Dean declared it to be.