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Fun's over; the real campaign begins
By TIM NICKENS
Published September 2, 2007
School's in session, college football is on television and it's Labor Day weekend. That means it's time to start paying more attention to a race for president that already has consumed tens of millions of dollars and countless hours of cable television airtime.
If you're just tuning in, you haven't missed much: a bunch of meaningless debates with too many candidates squeezing in their instantly forgotten sound bites, a lot of talk about an unpopular war that will have no good ending, and a ridiculous fight over the timing of Florida's January primary.
You might have heard something about Obama Girl on YouTube, Hillary Clinton's cleavage or John Edwards' $400 haircut. You certainly didn't hear a Republican candidate lavishly praise President Bush or characterize himself as something other than conservative. A snowman asked a question about global warming in one debate, which proved to be more memorable than the answers.
Consider yourself caught up. It still feels like summer, but now is the time to look toward the fall and start sizing up the field of candidates. Here are five questions to ponder as you sit by the pool:
- Can anybody catch Hillary?
She is not as natural at campaigning as her husband, but she is just as relentless. She has the money and the political machine to methodically march to the Democratic nomination and into the general election campaign. She has more than held her own in the early debates, and she can take a punch and throw back three.
The question is how much Democrats want a new face and how far they will look ahead to the general election. There is Clinton fatigue, even within the party. As Karl Rove notes, her negative poll numbers among all voters are extremely high. The stars are aligned for a Democrat to win the presidency, but Clinton is a polarizing figure who could re-energize a depressed Republican base.
- Is Barack Obama ready?
The freshman senator from Illinois has raised an impressive amount of money. He is a gifted speaker who can energize a crowd. By his rhetoric and his race, he offers a fresh approach for voters tired of the Bushes and the Clintons. He has dared to suggest to the National Education Association that teacher merit pay should be considered, and he has talked about better fuel efficiency in Detroit.
Now he just has to demonstrate he is up for the job, which won't be easy. Asked about experience, Obama has a snappy comeback about all of the experience in the Bush administration that got us into the mess in Iraq. But he has sounded naive in answering questions about when he would use nuclear weapons and asserting his eagerness to meet face-to-face with certain dictators.
- Can Mitt Romney build enough momentum?
Don't look at the national polls, which show Rudy Giuliani ahead in the race for the Republican nomination. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, leads in Iowa and New Hampshire. That's what counts. Assuming he wins those first two contests, Romney will be the favorite even if he stumbles in more conservative South Carolina.
Like Clinton, Romney has an impressive organization and has raised plenty of money. He is polished and programmed. Giuliani relies more on gut and wings it. John McCain has flamed out, and Fred Thompson's best day may be when he enters the race this week. Romney's challenges include convincing conservatives that his suddenly vigorous opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage is genuine, and answering concerns about his membership in the Mormon church.
- What will be the issue that captures voters' imagination?
Looking past the unpopular war, it could be health care. Some 47-million Americans are uninsured, including 1 in 5 Floridians. Many of those who have coverage can't afford it. Premiums keep going up even as benefits are reduced. Clinton didn't fare so well the last time she tackled this issue, but times have changed and so has she. Romney is also well-positioned to tackle this issue, given his efforts in Massachusetts to create a system of universal care.
- How much change?
The electorate is frustrated with the war, the lame-duck president, Congress, the economy and nearly everything else. The question is whether voters are so discontent they want a complete break from familiar faces and rhetoric - or whether they conclude a little change is enough.