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Friday Presidential Line: No Rest for the Weary

It's August -- that lovely month when politics slows down in preparation for the drinking-from-a-water-hose days that come after Labor Day.

Unfortunately for The Fix's vacation plans, no one seems to have told the candidates for president. On both sides, frontrunners and long shots alike are crisscrossing Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina (not to mention Florida) looking for votes.

If the 2008 campaign is the earliest starter in the modern history of elections, it is now becoming increasingly clear that it will also be the most relentless. Nearly every day now, the frontrunners on both sides are sniping at each other -- for Republicans it's over immigration and guns, for Democrats it's over nuclear weapons and Iraq -- and the back and forth shows no signs of letting up.

Of course, the ramped-up campaign might have something to do with the fact that it now appears likely that the nomination will be decided by the end of January. Michigan's move to Jan. 15 sets a series of dominoes in motion that will probably put the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 8 and the Iowa caucuses a few days before that. We still think any votes in December are unlikely -- all sides see that as a bridge they don't want to cross -- but who knows at this point?

What we do know is that if you like politics like we like politics the next few months are going to be fun to watch. And here at The Fix we've got a frontrow seat.

Here's our take on where the candidates for president stand at the moment. The candidate ranked number one on each side is considered most likely to win the nomination. Remember, this is a snapshot in time; a campaign would rather be ranked #1 on Jan. 1 than today.

To the Line!

DEMOCRATS

1. Hillary Rodham Clinton: Clinton's lead in national polls continues to widen over her rivals -- each of whom insists national polling doesn't matter. We agree -- to a point. The nominating process is still a state-by-state affair, but voters in early states like to be with a winner. So if Clinton looks like that heading into Iowa, it could well impact how the caucuses turn out. Clinton remains the steadiest candidate on the stump and in debates although -- for the first time -- she let herself be rattled by her opponents regarding her acceptance of donations from lobbyists during the YearlyKos presidential forum. That mistake aside, Clinton has effectively neutralized many of the doubts about her candidacy, including her initial vote for the 2002 resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. Polling seems to show voters are more interested in plans for the future than examinations of the past. But, if and when her opponents begin to hammer her on the vote on television, do those numbers move? (Previous ranking: 1)

2. Barack Obama: Obama's performance in the ABC debate last weekend was his best yet and effectively outlined a central tension he is hoping to raise in the coming months: the difference between experience and judgment. Obama and his team is well aware that the biggest knock on him is that he has spent too little time on the national stage to be elected to the nation's highest office. But, Obama has begun to push back against that experience argument by noting that despite the years and years of political experience of other candidates in the race, he was the only one of the frontrunners to get it right when it came to Iraq. His judgment was better, and after all isn't good judgment at the core of being a leader? It's a potentially powerful distinction depending on just how much the original 2002 Iraq vote matters to Democratic primary and caucus voters. (Previous ranking: 2)

3. John Edwards: The Edwards campaign seem to have concluded that the field isn't big enough for two "change" candidates. And so, Edwards has begun to draw contrasts with Obama in an attempt to wrest the change mantle from the Illinois Senator. Edwards has attacked Obama's plan to reform lobbying in Washington and continually calls for "bold" change. But, Edwards's rhetoric may be less important than his tone as he tries to differentiate himself from Obama. Edwards is angry, outraged even, about the state of affairs in Washington. It's a marked contrast to the calm, cool and collected manner of Obama. But are voters ready to cast a ballot for an angry candidate? (Previous ranking: 3)

4. Bill Richardson: What to do about Bill Richardson? In the same month that polls continue to show positive movement in Iowa and New Hampshire and he puts together his best debate performance to date, he also tells a gay rights forum that he believes homosexuality is a choice -- a position he later retracted. UGH! So it goes for Richardson: he seems to take two steps forward in this campaign for every one he takes backward, but those steps backward get a lot of attention. His tendency towards misstatements may help to explain why the frontrunners don't appear to be losing sleep over Richardson's uptick in early state polls. Richardson needs to continue to stay under the frontrunners' radar for the next few months and catch fire in December and early January. It's a bit far fetched but nonetheless possible. (Previous ranking: 4)

5. Chris Dodd: Dodd's campaign -- at the moment -- is bereft of any momentum. He can't seem to distinguish himself in the debates (whether that's his fault or the fault of the moderators we leave up to you) and there still doesn't appear to be a slot for him in a field filled with better known and better financed candidates. So, why include Dodd on the Line? Because of all the remaining candidates he has the financial firepower to play seriously in Iowa. That means that if something cataclysmic takes place at the top of the field, he will have the money to take advantage. The same can't be said for Sen. Joe Biden (Del.). (Previous ranking: 5)

REPUBLICANS

1. (tie) Rudy Giuliani: It's no secret that when the campaign started that The Fix was skeptical about the chances of a pro-abortion rights, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control candidate winning the Republican nomination for president. To date, Giuliani has proven his detractors wrong -- effectively blunting the power of the abortion and gay rights issues to an amazing degree. Now, his stands on guns and immigration seem to be drawing the sharpest attacks from his rivals. But, we're beginning to wonder whether anything will stick to Giuliani. Nothing has so far and we're not sure that's because the performance of the former New York mayor immediately after Sept. 11, 2001 affords him insulation or because Republican voters prize "electability" over all other traits. Whatever the reason, it accrues to Giuliani's benefit. (Previous ranking: 2)

1. (tie) Mitt Romney: By any traditional measure, Romney has run the best campaign on the Republican side. He spent most of the early part of the year working doggedly to raise the millions he knew he needed for an early and prolonged media campaign. Despite some skepticism about the efficacy of early advertising, Romney and his team stuck to their guns and have watched as he has risen to the top of polls in both Iowa and New Hampshire thanks to an onslaught of commercials. And, he used that organizational heft to score a convincing win in the Ames Straw poll earlier this month. Yet, even Romney's strategists acknowledge that the candidate has not closed the sale with voters in these early states. He has made a favorable first impression, but can it be a lasting one? Romney's position switches on abortion are likely to get a lot more attention from his rivals in the coming months. How he handles questions about his core beliefs and how well he can sell those beliefs as genuine to early state voters will determine Romney's chances at the nomination. (Previous ranking: 1)

3. Fred Thompson: Even before Thompson announces his candidacy there is chatter that he has missed his window of opportunity in the race -- never a good sign. Skipping the Ames Straw poll earlier this month was a mistake for Thompson since it would have provided a relatively cheap way to keep Romney from building momentum in the Hawkeye State and thwart Romney's effort to turn this into a two-way race between himself and Giuliani. Thompson not only sat out the Iowa contest but had to spend much of the month dealing with internal campaign problems -- including the abrupt departure of spokesman Burson Snyder. NBC political director Chuck Todd has been saying that Thompson will have a week or so after his official announcement to get his campaign back on track and we agree. But, at the moment, it doesn't appear as though the problems that have plagued the candidate-in-waiting are solved. That should be worrisome to all the Fredheads out there. What should give them some solace is the fact that Thompson continues to run second or third in the vast majority of state and national polling we've seen. (Previous ranking: 3)

4. Mike Huckabee: Huckabee's best day in the campaign so far was Aug. 11. His surprise second place showing at Ames was -- finally! -- a sign of life from a candidate whose upside (to quote NBA draft analysts) is as high as anyone in the field. Can Huckabee capitalize? Maybe. What's clear is that even after Ames he is WAY behind people like Romney and Giuliani (and even Thompson) when it comes to organization and -- as importantly -- money. Huckabee likely can't put together an infrastructure on the fly to match those ranked above him on the Line but he also faces less of a burden to perform in early states. A third place finish in Iowa for any of the top three would be the beginning of the end while coming in third in the caucuses would likely give Huckabee a major boost. Maybe in this case the "soft bigotry of low expectations" could work in his favor? (Previous ranking: 5)

5. John McCain: This has been a precipitous fall for McCain. With a skeleton staff and dwindling chances in both Iowa and South Carolina, it appears as though his last best shot to influence the outcome is in New Hampshire, where McCain became MCCAIN! in 2000. Voters in the state still feel a real affinity for McCain the maverick and he has the potential to really roil the waters in the state for the frontrunners. What if McCain decided that he was going to derail Romney in the Granite State? He could be an incredibly powerful anti-Romney messenger, leading to a Giuliani victory that would -- again -- likely make South Carolina the do-or-die moment in the GOP nomination fight. Could McCain be more than just a spoiler? Yes. We've learned to never say never in politics. But until we see evidence that his campaign has truly turned a corner, we're skeptical he is a major player in this race. (Previous ranking: 4)

By Chris Cillizza  |  August 24, 2007; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  The Line  
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