..and they're loading into the gate
In a chronological sense, it's way too early to be talking about the 2008 presidential race. But it's easy to get sucked into the discussion. In a practical sense, President George W. Bush's abysmal approval ratings signal that the American public is more than anxious to move on and start fixing up the immense domestic and international damage caused by this sad, failed administration.
So, here's a quick spring-training assessment of the major candidates in both parties:
Hillary Clinton: The perceived frontrunner in the polls and in the media, though she's nowhere near a majority in support among likely Democratic primary voters. Her strengths are her name recognition and her not-inconsiderable ability to fight and stand up to repeated attacks from her opponents. And she's raised a formidable campaign war chest.
But (like her husband) she's much more centrist than her public perception might suggest. (I'm always amused at how hostile Republicans are to her, given that she's the Democrat least likely to change things substantially should she gain the White House.) Her Iraq war vote remains a millstone around her neck, though her campaign has been fairly effective in disguising its implications and in changing the subject. But the Democrats have far less ambiguous choices, one of them being.
Barack Obama, who is likely the most charismatic national figure to emerge on the Democratic scene since Bill Clinton, if not since John F. Kennedy. Obama is a major draw on the campaign trail, especially among younger Americans, and his online presence is easily the best developed of any declared candidate on either side.
Just as importantly, he occupies the mainstream, majority position on the most important issue of the decade - the Iraq war - unlike most of his opponents. He's proving to be a stellar fundraiser, if not quite at Senator Clinton's level. But given the buzz he's been generating, he doesn't have to match her dollar for dollar.
His campaign is long on sweeping, visionary statements and short on actual issues, which might cost him points with political junkies but which sweeps crowds off their feet. And given the low esteem in which "experienced" Washington politicians are held by the public, his comparative "green-ness" will probably help him more than hurt him. Another relative Washington outsider is...
John Edwards. His experience on Capitol Hill amounts to only six years in the Senate, so he has his share of credibility in playing the "outsider" card. Almost uniquely among Democrats (and Republicans), he's emphasizing economic issues, which has given him a loyal, if still somewhat undersized, base of support.
He can almost match Senator Obama's charisma, and unlike Mrs. Clinton, he's publicly disavowed his vote to enable President Bush's Iraq war. He's also made some gutsy calls during his campaign - such as being the first to pull out of a debate hosted by Fox - that have confounded Beltway pundits but have endeared him to activists. If he can ramp up his funding, he'll be right up there with the top two. And he might well be joined by...
Bill Richardson, who is the candidate in the race with the most foreign-policy credibility. His successful governorship of New Mexico reflects well upon his skills as an executive, as well as providing some always-desirable distance from the Washington elites.
A strong speaker and a fair-to-good fundraiser, his biggest obstacles to moving up are mainly in his relative lack of name recognition and a bit of charisma deficiency compared to the other contenders. It's hard to get decent oxygen from the media given the rest of the field. But he's one big moment away from joining the top tier.
There are other candidates in the field, notably Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich. But none of them has really gained much traction in the polls. And none of them really has a "hook" to distinguish himself.
And then there's Al Gore lurking in the shadows. If he enters the race in the fall, the effects will be seismic, given his popularity within the party and his ability to raise quick money.
Rudy Giuliani. Despite two ugly divorces, one annulment, a firmly pro-choice stand on abortion, and nonzero tolerance for gay people, the Republican base just loves him. Even the fundamentalist crowd has warmed to him, lending support to the idea that a good number of fundamentalist Christians don't really believe in anything.
Mr. Giuliani, a former New York City mayor, has emerged as the front-runner for the Republicans, and it's not hard to see why. He exemplifies the authoritarian, thuggish figure that defines the modern right-wing mindset. If one evaluates him on his actual record, though, and not on the 9/11 mythmaking that spawned his personality cult, he's manifestly unimpressive.
Then again, substance hasn't been a requirement for a Republican nominee since the days of Goldwater. The one thing that could hurt him is that he's not the "establishment" choice. As of now, those honors belong to...
John McCain. As with Kansas Sen. Robert Dole in 1996, there's a general feeling in the Republican camp that it's "his turn," and he's been good at gobbling up funding and advisors. His problem is that he's caught between a rock and a hard place with the Republican base.
The fundamentalists deeply mistrust him, and he's responded by pandering in their direction - but this has come at the expense of shedding his never-really-deserved credentials as a "maverick" Republican. His slavish support of the unpopular Iraq war, his steadfast fealty to the even more unpopular President Bush, and his complete inability to articulate a position with sincerity might convince the Republican power structure to cut bait with him. Which leads us to...
Mitt Romney. Also known as "Multiple-Choice Mitt" in Massachusetts, a state he willingly lived in for 30 years despite claiming to despise it. If I hated where I lived that much, I'd probably, well, move somewhere else, but former Governor Romney apparently has a masochistic streak, not to mention an embarrassing propensity to mix up his rhetorical references, as we just saw happen in Florida with his clumsy Fidel Castro sloganeering.
It's hard to figure out what he stands for, given his tendency to shift positions with the slightest zephyr, and he's about as soulful as a strip mall. But he is the kind of slick, clean-cut, well-scrubbed candidate that consultants drool over, and - unlike Senator McCain - he's a few degrees of separation from the Iraq debacle. But a Republican candidate who's even less tainted by Iraq is available, and his name is...
Mike Huckabee. A dark-horse candidate at this point, but given the pounding that the Republican brand has taken over the last six or seven years, being relatively obscure is probably an asset if you're a Republican these days. The former Arkansas governor breaks from doctrinaire right-wingers in that he believes that government can and should be an agent to fix problems, and - unlike Mr. Giuliani and Senator McCain - his credentials with the fundamentalists are unassailable.
Whether or not this combination makes him electable in a Republican primary remains to be seen, and his fundraising hasn't exactly broken any banks so far. But if the Republicans convince themselves that they need a fresh new face, he'll start appearing in talk shows within the week.
Kansas Senator Sam Brownback is the religious-right favorite, but he's way too far out of the mainstream to win a national election. Newt Gingrich is the Republicans' Al Gore. He has the resources and the popularity among ardent supply-siders to enter late and completely discombobulate the race overnight.
Place your bets.