With 29 months to go until November 2008, the race for the presidency has already begun. Even before the 2006 congressional elections, presidential wannabes can be found under every rock and behind every tree in any state that’ll have them.
That there’s speculation this early is part of the game, but the fundraising and barnstorming activity that's taking place at this point in the cycle is unusual. One reason, according to Chuck Rund, president of Charlton Research, is that 2008 is the first election since 1952 when there's no obvious standard bearer in either party. According to Rund, that leaves no obvious front runner this early in the game.
Tom Brokaw, in a June 18 Sunday Washington Post column made the same point. "…if we're to believe Dick Cheney and Al Gore about their intentions," there won't be "an incumbent president or a sitting or recently retired vice president…[as] a candidate — which opens the field even more."
The battle for attention has gotten so heated that the June 18th Los Angeles Times headlined a story with, "Presidential Ambitions Distract Senate," as if there was nothing important going on in the country that requires their attention. "There are so many lawmakers considering a run for president that they are practically tripping over each other. The outbreak of ambition adds an 'every man for himself' dynamic to an institution that is already struggling to build consensus on important issues such as how to combat illegal immigration and high gas prices."
"Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) jokes that he is one of the 'designated drivers' of the Senate because he is not running for president. 'We are driving the Senate while so many of our colleagues are intoxicated with the idea of being president,' Durbin said."
The list of Republican Senators considering the brass ring includes (in no particular order):
- Majority Leader Bill Frist (TN), who some claim is using his leadership role to further his presidential ambitions.
- John McCain (AZ), who seems to have a knack of attracting disaffected voters from both parties.
- George Allen (VA), who may be facing his toughest senatorial race this November against Democrat Jim Webb.
- Sam Brownback (KS), who is very close to religious conservatives.
- Chuck Hagel (NE), a solid conservative who has distanced himself from Bush's Iraq war policies.
Democrats are also well represented:
- Hillary Clinton (NY) — how'd she get listed first?
- Evan Bayh (IN), who presents an attractive centrist perspective and was also governor of Indiana for two terms.
- Joseph Biden, Jr. (DE) who didn't make it very far in 1988.
- Russell Feingold (WI), whose liberal positions — in particular his call for censure of President Bush because of the domestic wiretapping issues, may play well early on but could hurt him later.
- Barak Obama (IL), who, while a first-term Senator, has been barnstorming the country while receiving rave reviews.
- Chris Dodd, (CT), a liberal in his 5th term.
And one mustn't forget:
- John Kerry
- John Edwards
- Former VA Governor Mark Warner
- NY Governor George Pataki
- MA Governor Mitt Romney
- Former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani
Four of the Republicans converged on Iowa yesterday (Saturday), and the state's Republican chairman, Ray Hoffman, commented, "It's never been this early." Of course, they all claimed they were there to help raise money for the 2006 congressional elections.
Gazing Through a Cloudy Crystal Ball
There is a sense that the 2008 election is going to be critical. In a Princeton Survey Research Associates poll for Unity '08, 61% of Americans think the election will be the most critical one in many years. At the same time, only 9% of Americans have been satisfied with past presidential candidates.
The list of issues the nation seems unable to resolve probably drives much of the concern about '08. Education, terror, healthcare, Iraq, foreign energy dependence, correction in D.C., the national debt, and immigration all were seen as critical by over 50% of the public and as either critical or important by over 80%. The intensity of these issues has been seen in multiple polls, and, as Brokaw notes, "That level of anxiety and uncertainty becomes a kind of collective cry for help that transcends party, economic and geographical lines."
Rund talks about the "issues structure" and that there's no way to know how it will evolve over the next two years. It's a complex matrix that includes social, economic, foreign policy, American pessimism, and American image challenges.
What makes that matrix so volatile and the crystal ball cloudy to the point of opaque is what Brokaw calls "The UFO Hovering Over 2008." UFO doesn't stand for some alien landing which will unite the world's people as in Independence Day, but for "Unforeseen Events Will Occur."
The American public's interest this early in the '08 elections is a good thing. One only hopes that it is sustained over the next 29 months. The only thing that's certain is the above list of candidates won't be the same in November of '08. They may not even last six months, which is why this column will serve as a baseline to track how the campaign unfolds.