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June 4, 2007

The Big Race

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

The presidential race is heating up to match the weather outside. It's in the 90s, and the campaign rhetoric between the candidates is well over 100 degrees.

On the Democratic Party ticket, Sen. Hillary R. Clinton of New York leads the pack, in both polling and fundraising. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois is closing in on the strength of his charming style and youth appeal.

I can't recall a more divisive front-runner for national office in my experience than the senator from New York. Senator Clinton leaves quite a wake, her years as defender-in-chief for her president husband helped define her, and not always for the better.

She seems intent on changing perceptions, everything from focus group testing her image to conducting an Internet contest to select her theme song. Mrs. Clinton's challenge in overcoming her past history is large, but certainly not insurmountable.

Senator Obama is fortunate to lack the big anvil that swirls around his presumptive primary opponent's neck. He doesn't have a record. Nothing, no significant legislative achievement, no defining accomplishment.

He's known for his eloquent and lofty speaking style and his ability to connect with a crowd. He is generating adoring crowds everywhere he goes; but his message, at least at this point, is restricted to how President George W. Bush has screwed up the Iraq situation.

If he can continue to impress voters without them focusing on his obvious lack of accomplishments, he'll give Hillary a run for her money.

Former senator and vice presidential candidate John Edwards is fading fast. He seemed like the national Democratic Party's rising star following the last presidential election. Handsome, bright, and passionate, Senator Edwards seemed like the total package.

His recent stump speech talks of two America's, one for the wealthy, and another for everyone else. He uses this analogy to blame President Bush and the Republican Party for this great divide.

Recently, the Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly sent a camera crew to Senator Edwards' home in North Carolina. A helicopter shot of his 20,000 square foot mansion is followed by interviews with the people who live across the street in a humble little trailer park.

Suffice it to say, there is no love lost between the one America that lives in the trailer park and the one that lives across the street in the huge multi-building compound. For all his everyman rhetoric, his neighbors wonder why Senator Edwards has never, in all his years there, ever bothered to come across the street to speak to his neighbors.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson wins the contest for the best TV ad so far. His job interview commercial is both funny and powerful. Too bad he doesn't have a chance; he seems to be the best qualified of the bunch. A successful governor, an ambassador, a cabinet member under President William J. Clinton, and a congressman.

On the GOP ticket, things are also heating up. Frontrunner Rudy Giuliani is still ahead in almost all polls, but his lead is tenuous based on recent and upcoming events. Rudy has the most impressive public service record of any candidate in this race; no one can ignore how he turned around the City of New York.

As a U.S. Attorney for the southern district of New York, Rudy is a legend for his prosecution of the Five Families of organized crime in New York City. The decision to hire Bill Bratton as police commissioner brought along with it the "Broken Windows" theory, opining that aggressive enforcement of nuisance violations reduces overall crime. His weaknesses are potentially serious in the GOP primary, though. He is pro-choice, and he supported a number of gun control measures while battling crime in New York City.

Another impressive record of public service and military heroism belongs to Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Senator McCain survived several years in the infamous Hanoi Hilton following the crash of his Navy jet on a bombing run over North Vietnam.

I used to think this was McCain's year, that no other Republican would touch him. Unfortunately, the immigration issue was brought to the front burner by President Bush and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D., MA), the world's most unlikely political bedfellows.

The so-called amnesty provisions of this bill, co-sponsored by Senator McCain, are being roundly attacked by conservative talk radio across the country. As long as those attacks continue, Senator McCain's chances to win a primary grow increasingly dim.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is the leading money raiser on the Republican side. He's already running a lot of ads, and his stature has risen in early primary states. The big question: Will GOP voters, especially Christian conservatives, vote for a Mormon candidate for President? Will traditional religious bias overwhelm a clearly qualified candidate?

All of the previous work and speculation will suffer if (more likely when) former senator and Hollywood actor Fred Dalton Thompson, of Tennessee, enters the race. He's already polling second or third in many states, even though he's not an official candidate.

I've tried to find out what Senator Thompson actually accomplished during his eight years in the Senate (one full term and half of a second), and I cannot find a single, landmark accomplishment. He is impressive, though.

Many Republicans are desperate for another Ronald Reagan. Qualifications be damned, just give us another Gipper! Look at the comparison. Reagan - charismatic, great communicator, popular actor, and traditional conservative. Thompson - check, check, check, and check. It might just be enough!

Any analysis of the GOP primary cannot ignore the specter of Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of The House of Representatives. Sure, he has some personal and moral issues to overcome, but the guy is an idea machine. No one in the current field has an equally encyclopedic knowledge of economics, health care, and international relations.

Newt says he'll decide after his fall Issues Forum. Come on, Newt, do we look like idiots? Why hold a national issues forum if you're not going to run? He'll run, bank on it. The big question is whether he can weather the obvious hypocrisy of his frequent criticism of former President Clinton when it's now obvious that he was doing essentially the same thing.

One interesting observation is whether or not the conservative vote will be divided between Mr. Romney, Mr. Thompson, and Mr. Gingrich. If that happens, Rudy or John McCain might vault ahead on the strength of the moderate GOP primary vote.

Third tier candidates will start dropping like flies as money gets harder to raise. Only the frontrunners will be able to return to previous donors for a second and third time. The lesser candidates, like Colorado Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo, might have generated money with an early message, but donors don't like to back a loser, so solicitation envelopes will end up in the trash.

It's going to get hotter, both the outside temperature and within the race for the White House.

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