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A Date With 2008

Only in a place as obsessed with politics as Washington could an election more than three and a half years away dominate so many discussions. But, heading into the first presidential campaign in 80 years without an incumbent president or vice president running, the possibilities are fascinating.

On the Republican side, virtually every national poll shows former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani leading the pack, with 25 to 30 percent of the vote. Sen. John McCain of Arizona tends to run second, with 20 to 25 percent, and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee score in the mid-to-high single digits.

After that, the GOP has a long cast of potential candidates who are drawing support in, at most, the low single digits: Sen. George Allen of Virginia, Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Gov. George Pataki of New York, Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, and Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

Although Giuliani leads the field in every survey of Republican voters, the smart money discounts his popularity -- few trained observers think that a "pro-choice," pro-gun-control, and pro-gay-rights candidate has much of a chance of winning the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. Giuliani drew large and enthusiastic crowds everywhere he went last year as he campaigned for President Bush and other GOP candidates, yet it is difficult to imagine that the social, cultural, and religious conservatives who play such an important role in the GOP's presidential-selection process will find Giuliani acceptable.

What about McCain? Many observers have a hard time believing that McCain, who will turn 72 in August 2008, will run for president again. But he certainly acts like someone who wants to run. And although it seems unlikely that the "theo-cons" would support McCain, they might not react to his nomination by deserting the party en masse, as they probably would if Giuliani became the standard-bearer.

Many party regulars don't appreciate McCain's trademark independence, but their desire to keep the White House in Republican hands could potentially trump such reservations. So, McCain's position looks infinitely stronger than Giuliani's. Still, McCain faces questions about how he would get enough primary-season votes to clinch his party's nomination.

Giuliani and McCain together are drawing between 45 and 55 percent of Republicans' support, meaning that about half of the GOP is open to nominating a liberal or a maverick in 2008. If Giuliani doesn't run or doesn't get traction, much of his support will likely shift to McCain.

But what of the rest of the presidential field? Jeb Bush has pretty much indicated that he is not going to run, at least not in 2008, and there seems no reason not to believe him.

Bill Frist? Republican campaign consultants tend to think that he has hurt his chances in recent months. His political instincts are questioned with increasing frequency, and his pedantic speaking style is unimpressive.

It's difficult this early to get a fix on where Gingrich fits into the constellation of potential 2008 candidates. The former speaker still gives mesmerizing speeches to GOP audiences, and he still has a reputation for being the party's "big-ideas" guy. But is Gingrich damaged goods? Is he perceived as a has-been of yesteryear, or is he still seen as a key player?

Then there is the rest of the pack. Santorum faces a difficult 2006 re-election campaign. Losing his Senate seat would effectively disqualify him from the presidential race. And a bloody fight to stay in office isn't likely to help his White House chances.

If Santorum does run into trouble, the beneficiary might be Brownback or Huckabee, two of the logical rivals for that same bloc of social conservatives that the Pennsylvanian might have attracted.

The political calendar that's tough on Santorum is even harder on Barbour, who is up for re-election in Mississippi in November 2007 -- just two months before the Iowa caucuses.

Insiders are already buzzing that Allen may be the most natural candidate in the GOP field. His folksy, Reaganesque style persuaded Dick Wadhams, one of the nation's most talented Republican campaign managers, to come on board as chief of staff in Allen's Senate office. Wadhams was hot off a high-profile victory in South Dakota, where he helped John Thune defeat Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle last year.

Almost no one west of the Hudson River takes Pataki's potential candidacy very seriously. He's probably not even popular enough in his home state to win again, if he chooses to seek a fourth term next year.

Hagel's challenge is figuring out how to position himself, as his good friend McCain prepares to run. The two Vietnam veterans are personally close and draw from the same well of Republicans who simply like mavericks or are more interested in economic and national security issues than in social or cultural ones.

The remaining three possible contenders are governors. Pawlenty, Romney, and Sanford are relatively unknown and undefined even among party activists and insiders. They have one advantage, though: They are not burdened by the senatorial curse. (No sitting senator has won the presidency since John Kennedy did it in 1960.) But Romney's potential candidacy poses the question of how a Mormon would fare in seeking national office.

Then there's the Democratic side. If Hillary Rodham Clinton runs, the primary contest could look like the NCAA basketball brackets -- with the senator from New York getting byes all the way to the semifinals. The real fight would be over who is the last Democrat standing between her and the general election.

Early national polling shows Clinton with around 33 to 39 percent of the Democrats' support, followed by Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, last year's Democratic presidential nominee, with around 20 percent; former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Kerry's running mate, with about 15 percent; and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who ran unsuccessfully in 2004, with 5 to 10 percent. Everyone else is bunched in the asterisk-to-5-percent range.

Clinton seems to be making every effort to prepare for a presidential race, but first she is focusing on winning a second Senate term by an impressive margin next year. People who know her well say that she will take a calculated look at the presidential race after her re-election. If she likes her chances, she'll run; if she doesn't, she won't.

Clinton's strengths would be that she could raise endless tons of money, could generate much excitement among Democrats, and could suck all the oxygen out of the race for anyone else.

The argument against her winning the nomination is simple: If you assume that 100 percent of Democrats know her -- or at least think they know what she stands for -- yet only a third now choose her, she might have a hard time sufficiently expanding her support.

On the other hand, much of the same could have been said about Ronald Reagan in the 1977 to '79 ramp-up to his 1980 campaign. He came close to defeating President Ford for the GOP nomination in 1976 and was well known and defined, yet his hold on the party faithful was tenuous enough that eight other Republicans entered the fray, including George H.W. Bush and Howard Baker. The arguments for why Reagan couldn't and shouldn't win the nomination or the White House were plentiful, but he did win both with room to spare.

It can also be argued that the two parties are less likely than before to nominate someone they really like but who they fear couldn't win the general election. Clinton's reputation for being incredibly polarizing might work against her.

While I suspect that I am minimizing Sen. Clinton's chances too much, my point is that she may not walk away with the nomination nearly as easily as some think.

Kerry's second-place standing in national polls could be a parking place where Democrats unwilling to support Clinton are settling until they find a new candidate. Many Democrats think that Kerry had his shot, wasn't a very good candidate, and put together a campaign that didn't even remotely match the professionalism of the Bush effort.

Edwards, who can expect to tap the vast resources of trial lawyers again, has a much better chance of reviving himself after the 2004 train wreck. While some Democrats complained last fall that Edwards wasn't visible enough on the campaign trail, last year's contest didn't hinge on the performances of the vice presidential nominees.

The former senator from North Carolina is clearly a very talented candidate who is less likely to be plagued by inexperience than he was in 2004. In 2008, he'd also benefit from the fact that few of his rivals could boast much more governing experience than he has. Finally, staying on the national scene could largely erase his problem of seeming to be too green.

I've argued in the past that Edwards's presidential message in 2003 and early 2004 came too close to calling for class warfare and was not the centrist message that helped launch Bill Clinton into the White House. But Edwards's advisers correctly note that Clinton did not position himself so much as a centrist early in the process. Clinton first ran left, got the nomination, then ran to the middle.

In short, Edwards's chances of winning the 2008 nomination are certainly better than they were of winning the 2004 nomination. If the economy is weak, his message might well resonate; if the nation's focus is on national security, his odds will be exceedingly long.

The one thing that Wes Clark had working against him last time won't apply in 2008: He had never run for anything before and was making the kinds of mistakes that other candidates had learned from many years and many races ago.

Indeed, for Kerry, Edwards, and Clark, their most valuable asset will be that they have been around the track and have had the chance to learn from errors. At times in 2004, Clark was an accomplished speaker and candidate. Other times, he simply wasn't.

Presumably, Clark will grow more consistent and will be aided by the view of many in the party that the Democrats lost in 2004 in part because too few voters trust Democrats on national security.

The field of other potential Democratic candidates consists of three senators -- Evan Bayh (Indiana), Joseph Biden (Delaware), and Russell Feingold (Wisconsin) -- and three governors -- Bill Richardson (New Mexico), Tom Vilsack (Iowa), and Mark Warner (Virginia).

The senatorial curse seems to apply to both parties. The curse is the result of a candidate's having cast (or missed) thousands of floor and committee votes, leaving a paper trail of potentially troublesome issues for future attack ads. But sitting senators also have the advantage of easy access to the national media.

It's amusing that the 62-year-old Biden, the boy wonder first elected to the Senate at 29, is now the old man (relatively speaking) in the field, likely to run on his experience and seasoning. Warner can run as the Democrat who might be able to crack the red states. Richardson is the only Hispanic in the group. Vilsack, Warner, Feingold, and Bayh can all run on having won votes in small-town and rural America, places where Democrats desperately need to do better.

In short, both parties' 2008 presidential nominations are truly up for grabs. And it's a pretty good bet that at least one party, if not both of them, will end up nominating someone whose support is so low today that it barely registers in national polls.

2008 could be the Year of the Asterisk.

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