Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut (D) was destined to be the latest workhorse to lose to the show horse. Despite a glittering Senate career spanning nearly 26 years in which he has legislated on most of the major issues of the day, Dodd was destined to play second fiddle to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in the presidential sweepstakes, much as Lyndon Johnson did to John Kennedy in an earlier era.

That is, until the Democratic presidential debate this past week. When she endorsed giving driver’s licenses to illegal aliens, Sen. Clinton provided Sen. Dodd an opening in this race, if he is willing to take advantage of it. Dodd was the only candidate on stage who spoke against the proposal, but it is still unclear if he intends to press his advantage and seek to jump-start his lagging candidacy.

There are good reasons why he won’t do so. Opposing driver’s licenses for illegal aliens runs totally counter to the canons of political correctness that dominate the Democratic Party. His establishment advisers and high-profile supporters are totally invested in the national Democratic Party and would recoil in horror to be part of a campaign that is criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union and La Raza. Dodd himself might have qualms about such a posture.

But there are good reasons why he should exploit this opening and engage Sen. Clinton on this issue. Here are my Top 5.

5. His position is overwhelmingly popular. Eighty percent of Americans oppose giving driver’s licenses to people who are in this country ILLEGALLY. The percentage of Democrats is smaller, but still a majority. Gray Davis was recalled in large part because he pushed through this policy in liberal California. All of the other Democratic candidates are on the other side of this question, so Dodd will have the field to himself if he makes this a major part of his campaign.

4. There is precedent for dissing an extreme element of your own base. Remember Bill Clinton and Sister Souljah? Criticizing the rapper separated him from the rest of the Democratic pack and gave rise to the “New Democrat” label that he used successfully not only in the primary season but in the general election in the fall of 1992. He also benefited from mainstream press commentary that commended his “courage” for criticizing the base of his own party. Dodd would generate similar free media for taking such a stand.

3. He is an impeccable liberal who could survive this one deviation from liberal orthodoxy. He could still highlight his voting record on a wide variety of issues, which is totally consistent with what most Democrats believe, and still win a chunk of the liberal vote.

2. He could sell his position as part of an enhanced domestic security package. The fact is that prohibiting driver’s licenses for illegal aliens is consistent with a package of reforms that would give Dodd a tougher image on the key issue of protecting Americans against domestic terrorism. He could also tout his views to beef up inspection of cargo containers entering the U.S., toughen federal standards for so-called soft targets of potential terrorism and enhance funding generally for homeland security programs as a way to carve out an identity as a Democrat who takes homeland security seriously.

1. If he doesn’t do something different, he will surely lose. If he is content to be the experienced, competent Senate vet, as he is now, he will be out of the race after New Hampshire with the thanks of everyone for running such an orthodox and predictable, and unsuccessful, campaign.

There is an opening in this field for a true centrist Democrat. We’ll see if Sen. Dodd will seize the moment.