Name the Democratic presidential candidates who scored unexpectedly strong showings in Democratic presidential caucuses over the weekend?

John Kerry? No, it is not exactly news that the frontrunner is winning primaries and caucuses. No doubt, Kerry’s showings in Washington, Michigan and Maine were impressive, and he is likely to secure some even more impressive finishes Tuesday in the Virginia and Tennessee primaries — proving in the period of four days that he can win in the west, the Midwest, the east and the south. But Kerry’s finishes confirm what the polls have been predicting ever since he won a surprisingly strong victory in the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses. He is the man to beat, and no one is beating him.

Howard Dean? No, he is not even exceeding the lowered expectations for his formerly frontrunning campaign. Dean continues to secure second-place finishes in northern states such as Washington, Michigan and Maine. But he is struggling to come in fourth in southern and border states. Even in his native New England, he has now lost both New Hampshire and Maine to Kerry. And the fact that he cannot do better in passionately anti-war states such as Washington and Maine begs the question: Where can he win?

John Edwards? No, he failed to move ahead of Dean in any of the northern states that voted over the weekend — even though he had support from the United Steelworkers union and former House Whip David Bonior in Michigan. And if he and retired Gen. Wesley Clark both lose to Kerry in Virginia and Tennessee Tuesday, it is going to get harder for Edwards and Clark to spin themselves as serious competitors for the nomination.

But if all the candidates that the media covers fell within their expectations over the weekend, then who were the exceptional contenders? A pair of candidates who are seldom accused of being serious competitors for the nomination, but whose candidacies offer primary and caucus goers opportunities to send real messages: Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton.

Kucinich ran third in the Washington state and Maine caucuses, beating Edwards and Clark. In Maine, Kucinich was winning around 14 percent of the vote, and he could yet have enough support to secure a delegate or so when all the caucus votes are counted.

Kucinich backers in Maine were not, for the most part, being romantic. In interviews with the local media on caucus day, they indicated that they knew the Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair was unlikely to win the nomination. But they also indicated that they wanted to send a message by backing the candidate who had staked out the most clearly antiwar, anti-Patriot Act, and anti-free trade stances in this year’s race. “Hopefully, he can have some influence on the final platform. (A strong performance) can add some credential to his positions,” explained Dennis Rioux, who caucused for Kucinich in Biddeford, Maine. Rioux, who was enthusiastic about Kucinich’s anti-war position and the candidate’s support for single-payer health care, said he hoped Kucinich would have enough delegates to raise those issues at the Democratic National Convention in July.

Sharpton backers were sending a similar message in Michigan. Sharpton, who campaigned aggressively in Detroit, actually ran second in the city. Only Kerry did better than Sharpton, who won 30 percent of the vote in one Detroit-based Congressional district, and 35 percent in the other. “(Candidates need to) pay attention to the urban agenda,” Sharpton backer Dorothy Redmond, of Detroit, told the Michigan Daily. “Although Sharpton won’t make it, I want to show blacks do vote and have issues.” Those sentiments won Sharpton seven delegates from Michigan, more than any of the candidates except Kerry and Dean.

“We can accumulate the delegates we need to go to the end of this campaign, to get 300 to 400 delegates,” says Sharpton. That may be a stretch, although Sharpton does have the potential to secure a good number of delegates in the March 2 New York primary. But it is not extreme to suggest that, as the big-name candidates stumble and fall out of the race, there will still be a desire among primary and caucus voters to send a message about the issues the Democratic Party so frequently fails to address. And the showings for Sharpton in Michigan and Kucinich in Washington and Maine suggest that they could come to serve as the message carriers for those Democrats who want to make sure their party stands for something come November.