While the fact was little noted, voting has finally begun in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. More than 43,000 voters in Washington, DC, participated in a non-binding primary Tuesday and, though most of the leading Democratic contenders chose to skip the contest, the results still provided some important insights regarding the race. To wit:

1.) HOWARD DEAN’S APPEAL IS FOR REAL. The former Vermont governor won 43 percent of the vote in a primary that saw a higher turnout than past presidential primary voting in the District of Columbia. Dean easily outdistanced other candidates who put more time and energy into the DC contest. And he showed strength across a city where African-American voters form a substantial majority, offering him an opportunity to counter the claims that he lacks the record and the style to appeal beyond his initial base of support among young, white, middle-class activists. Dean made note of that fact in a call Tuesday night to a gathering of several hundred enthusiastic supporters at the Lucky Bar in Northwest Washington. Echoing the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s campaign theme from insurgent races for the Democratic nomination in 1984 and 1988, Dean told his cheering backers, “We’re going to build a rainbow coalition to take over this country for the people who own it.”

Dean’s win in the DC vote has meaning beyond the fact that the former governor of a small, rural state collected significant support from urban voters. Dean was the only one of the supposed frontrunners in the race who allowed his name to remain on the DC ballot. That was a risk, because party leaders succeeded in pressuring Wesley Clark, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, John Edwards, and Joe Lieberman to pull out of a DC primary that would choose no delegates but that was condemned by officials in Iowa and New Hampshire as an affront to the carefully guarded “first-in-the-nation” status of those two states. It was also a risk because, with the Iowa vote coming next Monday, Dean was not going to be able to do much personal campaigning in the district as “advisory” primary approached.

Dean chose to remain in the running in DC as part of a 50-state strategy that puts an uncommon level of faith in prominent local backers and volunteers to deliver the votes on election day.

In DC, as Dean strategists had hoped, the campaign’s much-vaunted volunteer army took up the slack and put on a genuine campaign. Prominent members of the city council – including Jack Evans, who fought to assure that voters in the nation’s capital would cast the first ballots in this year’s presidential race — endorsed Dean. More than 30,000 Dean appeals were mailed to the most likely voters. Blue-and-white “Dean for President” signs appeared on utility polls and vacant building fronts. Congressional Black Caucus chairman Elijah Cummings, a Democratic representative from neighboring Maryland, headlined a rally that drew several hundred people to a downtown church on the Saturday before the voting. And on election day, at many polling places in the city, the only person handing out leaflets was a Dean backer.

The Dean campaign’s ability to translate enthusiastic volunteers into an effective campaign organization was on display in DC. That fact is not to be underestimated as the former governor, who is battling to hold onto poll leads in Iowa and New Hampshire, ponders the prospect of a long campaign that will be fought out in many states that will not get the same level of candidate face time that is accorded to early caucus and primary states.

2.) THE REV. AL SHARPTON, THOUGH HE HAS LITTLE MONEY AND ORGANIZATION, COULD YET END UP INFLUENCING THE COURSE OF THE CONTEST FOR THE DEMOCRATIC NOD. The New York civil rights activist campaigned hard in DC, and he did well. Sharpton ran second to Dean, trailing the frontrunner by only about 3,500 votes. Sharpton secured more than a third of the vote, and easily won many of the city’s most economically disadvantaged precincts. As in his previous races for US Senate in New York state and for mayor of New York City, Sharpton showed that he knows how to parlay free media and energetic street campaigning into a solid showing in urban areas.

Sharpton, who has aggressively criticized Dean’s weak record of hiring people of color during his years as governor of Vermont and who has challenged African-American elected officials for jumping on the Dean bandwagon, was a serious competitor in DC. By investing a small amount of money, $50,000, in radio advertising on stations with large African-American audiences, and by investing a substantial amount of his own time – Sharpton campaigned across the city until the polls closed Tuesday — he ran up a more-than-respectable vote total. Indeed, if he had been able to attract the 12 percent of the vote that went to the other prominent African-American candidate, former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun, Sharpton could have upset Dean in Tuesday’s voting. That would have proven to be embarrassment to the frontrunner in the run-up to Monday’s Iowa voting.

Don’t underestimate that Sharpton, a dogged competitor who can keep running with only a fraction of the money other campaigns require, could yet embarrass Dean and other leading contender as the campaign moves to states with large minority populations. The first test will be in South Carolina, where Sharpton continues to poll well in advance of that state’s Feb. 3 primary. But Sharpton’s real show of strength is likely to come in New York’s March 2 voting, when he could tip the balance in a race between Dean and another candidate, perhaps retired Wesley Clark or John Edwards, who emerges as the “anti-Dean” for which much of the Democratic party establishment has been searching.

“For someone who never held political office to get a third of the vote in the nation’s capital is a huge story,” Sharpton declared Tuesday night. Actually, it didn’t turn out to be that huge a story. Most of the media attention remained focused on the fight for Iowa. But Sharpton’s showing serves as a reminder that his run could yet shape the story of the 2004 race.