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The Line: As '08 Race Heats Up, Hillary and Rudy Remain on Top

Every month that passes between installments of The Fix's Line on the 2008 presidential race seems like an eternity. With June almost here, the primary campaigns are getting close to fully engaged -- several candidates are on television in the early voting states and they are even beginning to confront one another on key issues like the war in Iraq and immigration.

All of this is to the good as far as The Fix is concerned. We love campaigns and the level of interest already apparent in this one makes our job fun day in and day out.

The status quo dominates the Line this month, as the race seems to have settled into something of a rhythm -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R-N.Y.) are established as the frontrunners and the other candidates are lining up behind them.

Neither Clinton nor Giuliani has the luxury of resting on early successes, as both have major questions to answer before the first votes are cast. For Clinton, has she found a way to finesse her 2002 Iraq war vote to the satisfaction of the Democratic base? For Giuliani, can he break the stranglehold social conservatives have had on the GOP nominating fight for the past 30 years?

As always, the No. 1 ranked candidate in each field is considered the most likely to win the nomination, based on where the candidates stand at this time. The Line is a conversation starter, not a discussion ender; offer your own thoughts in the comments section below.

To the Line!

THE REPUBLICANS

1. Rudy Giuliani: The potential perils for Giuliani's candidacy were on display during the first Republican presidential debate earlier this month. In a field of candidates proclaiming that the day Roe v. Wade is overturned will be a glorious and monumental day for the country, Giuliani said it would be "OK." He cleaned up his rhetoric on abortion in the second debate in South Carolina but had to weather a week and a half of stories about his pro-abortion rights position in between. We still believe that most Republican primary and caucus voters have a sense that Giuliani is more liberal than they are but don't know the specific details. Giuliani's opponents will make sure the voters become better informed between now and next January. It is a hard road to the nomination for Giuliani, but no more difficult than for those candidates ranked below him on the Line. (Previous ranking: 1)

2. John McCain: After a disastrous first three months of the year, McCain seems to have righted the ship. A number of longtime loyalists have left the campaign, but those familiar with the internal workings insist that changes had to be made and the campaign is now more streamlined and efficient -- especially in its finance operation. We'll buy what they're selling for the time being. McCain was the best overall performer in the first two debates and has shown a willingness to engage former Mitt Romney, which seems like a return to the McCain of campaign 2000. While we agree that McCain's temper has the potential to get him in trouble down the line, the few flashes we've seen lately seem for the moment to signal that he is actually engaged in this race and not just going through the motions -- a net positive. (Previous ranking: 3)

3. Mitt Romney: Like Edwards, Romney may be in the third slot on the Line at the moment but his campaign is right where he and his team want it to be. Romney won the first debate convincingly and showed the "aw shucks" demeanor that should play well in the early primary and caucus states. He is also starting to see real gains from his advertising in early states. One recent Iowa poll showed him with a double-digit lead over both McCain and Romney. The problem we see for Romney is that his re-positioning on a series of issues -- especially abortion -- makes for an easy (and potentially devastating) series of campaign ads from his opponents. But if anyone can withstand the coming onslaught, it's Romney. (Previous ranking: 3)

4. Fred Thompson: It now seems like a matter of when, not if, the former Tennessee senator formally enters the presidential race. He is already brought on a campaign manager and a general counsel, and we hear that either next month or in early July Thompson will make it official. We can't shake the idea that Thompson could wind up like retired Gen. Wesley Clark in 2004, whose best day as a candidate was his first. Thompson will benefit from the fact that he is a larger-than-life figure who naturally prompts a comparison to another actor-turned-politician-turned-president. But his late start has major downsides. He begins the campaign roughly $30 million behind the frontrunners and with zero organization in early states. How does he raise tens of millions of dollars quickly and find skilled staff who know how to win early states? (Previous ranking: 4)

5. Mike Huckabee: The former Arkansas governor was the only second-tier candidate to truly distinguish himself during the first two debates. He was affable, funny and down-to-earth. And yet, we don't see any way that Huckabee can vault himself into the top three anytime soon. Huckabee lacks serious organizations in any of the three early states -- Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. He also has yet to demonstrate the capacity to raise the sort of money that would allow him to be within shouting distance of the frontrunners. The biggest chance for Huckabee to change the conventional wisdom about his chances is the Ames (Iowa) Straw Poll in August. A top three showing would demonstrate a depth of organization we have yet to see from him and create significant momentum in the months between the straw poll and the caucuses. (Previous ranking: N/A)

THE DEMOCRATS

1. Hillary Rodham Clinton: Clinton's campaign has not been without bumps lately -- the leaked campaign memo suggesting that she skip Iowa, her confusing (and seemingly contradictory) rhetoric on funding the Iraq war. But by in large, she has weathered them well. Clinton's most obvious problem is the fact that she is in a dogfight in Iowa, with polls showing her running regularly behind former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) and occasionally behind Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.). Clinton's Iowa team has been slow to come together, but former Gov. Tom Vilsack's (D-Iowa) endorsement should help organizationally over the long term. Clinton's biggest advantage in this race remains the sense that she will inevitably wind up as the nominee. A loss in Iowa -- no matter the expectations -- would poke a major hole in that balloon. Still, when you look at candidate, message, money and organization Clinton continues to look quite strong. For more on Clinton, see today's Post: "Books Paint Critical Portraits of Clinton." (Previous ranking: 1)

2. Barack Obama: It's not easy living up to the gigantic expectations that follow Obama everywhere. Being touted as the next John F. Kennedy is a tough burden for anyone to carry, even someone as uniquely talented as Obama. It's easy to forget that Obama has been a national figure for less than two years, but his occasional misstatements in recent weeks (vastly overestimating the number of people killed in a Kansas tornado being the prime example) speak to the fact that he is still adjusting to what it takes to run a national campaign. Unlike Clinton, who has been at this for years, Obama -- and his staff -- are still finding his limits, figuring out when he is at his best and, as importantly, when he is at his worst. Obama has sharpened his rhetoric on the war in Iraq, emphatically emphasizing his initial opposition to the conflict, in an attempt to deny Clinton the opportunity to blur the lines between their two positions. It's crucial for him to draw a bright line on the issue over the coming months. (Previous ranking: 2)

3. John Edwards: As the two frontrunners continue to struggle daily with the necessity of voting on a series of Iraq proposals on the Senate floor, Edward seems content to sit back and lob rhetorical bombs. Knowing that a compromise on Iraq funding was a near certainty, Edwards got out front on the issue by calling on Congress to avoid any sort of capitulation to the White House. Edwards rightly understands his niche in this race as the outsider and expertly used the Iraq funding vote to draw a stark contrast between himself and Obama and Clinton. That's not to say Edwards hasn't committed his share of mistakes. The $400 haircut was a stunning miscalculation for a candidate who has been through the national media meat grinder once before. And we still don't really get why Edwards was working for that hedge fund. But he is where he wants to be right now -- perceived as the most liberal of the Big 3 on the issue that animates the party's base like no other. (Previous ranking: 3)

4. Bill Richardson: Richardson's "Job Interview" ads are the most unique and, we think, effective of the early television campaign. One sign of how good the ads are is that his numbers appear to be bumping up a bit in Iowa and New Hampshire. Richardson missed an opportunity to stand out in the first Democratic presidential debate and may have even hurt himself a bit among insiders with his nervous performance. But he is a candidate with considerable political skills and, without question, the deepest resume among the Democratic candidates (singled out by none other than Lee Iacocca this week in an interview with PBS's Charlie Rose). And ... he's Hispanic. It's still hard for us to see Richardson disrupting one of the Big 3 unless they commit some major mistake. But he continues to be the candidate closest to joining the top tier. (Previous ranking: 4)

5. Chris Dodd: Kudos to Dodd for his early and vocal support for the Reid-Feingold Iraq funding measure -- a position that both Clinton and Obama eventually adopted. But the fact that Clinton and Obama are now on the record in support of a firm timetable for the removal of U.S. troops and de-funding of the war complicates Dodd's chances of distinguishing himself. He's naming names in his new television ads, hoping to make clear to voters that there are differences between him and Clinton and Obama on Iraq. It's a tough sell. Neither of the frontrunners needs to be a trailblazer on the issue; rather, they just need to make sure they vote right when votes are called in the Senate. Dodd is trying his best to make a move, but Clinton and Obama are tacking close to him for the moment. (Previous ranking: 5)

By Chris Cillizza  |  May 25, 2007; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008 , The Line  
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