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Politics on speed

STUART ROTHENBERG is editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report, an independent, nonpartisan political newsletter based in Washington.

ALMOST 10 months before the Iowa caucuses and more than 19 months before voters pick the next president, Americans are telling pollsters that they are watching the 2008 presidential race closely. For instance, a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey of 1,007 adults found that 26% said they were following the contest “very closely,” while 47% reported keeping an eye on the race “somewhat closely.”

There is no denying that the 2008 contest has begun earlier and is generating more media coverage at this stage than previous White House races. A Feb. 5 presidential primary in California will no doubt quicken the pace. All the earlier coverage is stoking interest and driving the decisions made by candidates, campaign operatives and strategists.

Four years ago, Democrat Howard Dean’s campaign generated some excitement in the media, but it pales in comparison with that sparked by Barack Obama or by Hillary Rodham Clinton’s and Rudolph W. Giuliani’s celebrity status. And this year, both parties have nomination contests, not just one as in 2004, when President Bush faced no serious GOP challenger.

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At this point in past presidential cycles, much of the campaign activity would be going on behind the scenes. Operatives would be focused on raising money, putting together state organizations in Iowa and New Hampshire and generally building a national campaign. But media coverage is already suffocating, with cable television networks covering the race as if it’s entering the stretch run and bloggers instantly commenting on the daily utterings of the candidates.

Already, liberal bloggers Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos and Jerome Armstrong of MyDD, who have a loyal following among the Democratic base, have, along with MoveOn.org, forced the cancellation of a Fox TV debate among Democratic candidates that had been scheduled for August in Nevada. John Edwards, a contender for the Democratic nomination, announced that he would not participate in the debate via an e-mail to Daily Kos.

“The candidates are being pushed up to Mach 1 speed by the media,” joked one veteran political consultant who has a horse in the 2008 race.

Campaign operatives say all the media attention pushed some candidates to enter the race earlier than planned -- nobody expected Clinton to announce her candidacy in January -- and to pack their schedules with events and appearances at the get-go. They know that if their candidate isn’t on the campaign trail, reporters will cover those who are.

Bigger events and more appearances mean more pressure and greater potential for controversy, which could easily lead to burnout for candidates and operatives alike.

“When you are selling yourself as a rock-star candidate, the concerts better be damn good,” said Steve Murphy, who is New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s media consultant and who has been active in Democratic presidential politics since 1976, including a stint as Dick Gephardt’s campaign manager in 2004.

Most of the media coverage, of course, isn’t about issues, the candidates’ voting records or their effectiveness in office. It is either about the candidates’ personal lives or what insiders call “process” -- the campaigns’ strategies and tactics.

The recent flap over Clinton contributor-turned-Obama supporter David Geffen is a perfect example of the type of sniping that probably would not have occurred so early in the calendar even a decade ago. When Geffen questioned the Clintons’ honesty and motives in an interview with a New York Times columnist, reporters and TV talking heads zeroed in. Front-runners Clinton and Obama were drawn into a competition to see who could score the most points from the Geffen tempest.

The change in the pace of this year’s presidential campaigns has put an emphasis on tactics rather than on building a campaign the old-fashioned way, from the ground up. Clinton’s successful effort to get an invitation to a church in Selma, Ala. -- and to bring her husband with her -- on the same day that Obama was delivering a speech marking the anniversary of the 1965 civil rights march there is an example of the early tactical nature of the Democratic race.

The same goes for Edwards’ lightning response to the suggestion, in a forthcoming book from former advisor Bob Shrum, that Edwards voted for the war in Iraq only on the advice of his political advisors.

A constant avalanche of media polls is also affecting campaign decision-makers.

“I’ve never seen so many national polls 11 months ahead of the first contests. It’s not just one week. It’s continual,” said Republican Lance Tarrance, who is senior strategist for Sen. John McCain’s campaign and is involved in his sixth presidential campaign.

The polls provide an early test of the candidates’ appeal, which, in turn, affects candidate fundraising and media coverage. With electability a particularly significant concern for both parties this cycle, candidates need to show strength, or at least movement, in the polls to raise cash. Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack’s inability to do that unquestionably led him to exit the Democrat race quite early, and Giuliani’s surprisingly strong showing, even in March, has shaken up the Republican contest.

Without the polls and media attention that the former New York mayor has received, he would have been dismissed by handicappers as too liberal to be nominated by Republicans. But his continued strength in surveys has changed that and has raised questions about McCain, who, six months ago, was widely seen as both the front-runner in the GOP race and the strongest nominee against Clinton. You can bet that the Arizona senator will try to change that quickly.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s early television ad -- aired in five states, including Iowa and New Hampshire -- undoubtedly is an attempt to boost his standing in the polls, fuel more buzz and attract more media attention. The same can be said for McCain’s decision to gas up his Straight Talk Express this early in the campaign. After recent polls showed him slipping, he needs to regain some of the magic that he had as an “outsider” seven years ago. And the early media frenzy surrounding Obama’s entry into the race affected the decisions of other candidates, most notably Clinton.

The heavy media coverage of the presidential race doesn’t mean that most Americans are making up their minds about whom to support. In fact, the caucus attendees in Iowa and primary voters in New Hampshire probably won’t pick their favorite candidates until the end of this year or even the first couple of weeks in January.

But that is no solace to candidates and strategists, virtually all of whom would have preferred that the 2008 race begin later and at a slower pace.


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