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'Invisible primary' already begun

Craig Gilbert
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MCT)

WASHINGTON - With the Iowa caucuses still more than 10 months off, the race for president already has seen its first TV ads, its first candidate forum, its first mass crowd events and its first official dropout (Democrat Tom Vilsack).

To some, this is all part of a fundamental shift in the way we select our presidential nominees.

"The year when we pick our nominee is no longer the election year. It's the year before, almost," said Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, one of several Democrats who decided last year against running.

"The importance of non-voting events has become much more dramatic," Matt Dowd, top strategist for President Bush's 2004 re-election, said in a recent interview, referring to all the barometers of the so-called "invisible primary" of the pre-election year - the ability to sustain early media attention, build grass roots and Internet support, draw large crowds, show movement in state and national polls, and above all, raise money.

In Dowd's view, the brutal winnowing once performed by voters in early contests such as Iowa and New Hampshire now begins far earlier.

"I think people will winnow themselves. They'll vote themselves out of the process," Dowd said, referring to candidates' ability to meet "non-voting" tests such as money and media buzz.

When the actual voting begins in January 2008, it "becomes more of an affirmation of what happened in 2007 as opposed to a surprise," Dowd said. "It's the end of the process rather than the beginning of the process."

That suggests a nominating system far less open to underdog and insurgent candidates, who in the past have relied on surprisingly strong showings in Iowa or New Hampshire for the money and momentum to compete in later and larger states.

Already, potential Democratic candidates Feingold, Evan Bayh and Mark Warner have opted out after thinking very hard about running.

And last month former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, the first Democrat to formally get into the race, abruptly got out, saying he couldn't raise the millions he needed to compete.

"I can't remember ever seeing this many high-caliber candidates getting out so soon," said Joe Trippi, who ran Howard Dean's 2004 campaign.

But Trippi disagrees with the view that the nominating process is becoming nationalized so early that underdog candidates can't compete in the "invisible primary" against well-funded heavyweights such as Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and Republicans John McCain and Rudy Giuliani.

"I can't understand why any of them are getting out," Trippi said of Bayh, Warner and, to some extent, Vilsack. "You only need a ... relatively small amount of money to compete in early states. If you rocket (in those states), you now have a way to refuel," he said, referring to the ability to raise large sums quickly from small donors over the Internet.

In Trippi's view, the presence of big names such as Clinton and Obama is precisely what gives underdog candidates their opening.

"One of the things that's always been true is when you have two or three people that are the ordained 'Big Three,' it actually works for you. That means there's actually a shot for a surprise," Trippi said.

But that notion is under assault for a variety of reasons. One is the failure of the public financing system to keep up with costs, meaning the top candidates are abandoning spending limits, resulting in a far more expensive nominating fight. Another is the continued front-loading of the nominating calendar, with as many as 20 or more states making plans to vote on Feb. 5, 2008, suddenly transforming the race from a series of small-state showdowns into a one-day "national primary."

The effect of all that, plus the long-building phenomenon known as the "permanent campaign," is that the "costs of running in the primaries have skyrocketed," said Craig Varoga, who was Vilsack's campaign manager.

"You will have candidates that go through the entire life cycle of a campaign this year," Varoga said. He compared Vilsack's abbreviated candidacy to "the way in which movies are edited and killed before they're even released, or a TV series is not given an entire season to develop. The networks pull the plug within two or three episodes."

Varoga said Vilsack and his aides understood the financial demands of an early campaign but perhaps not "the speed at which everything happened. I anticipated having to deal with many of these issues in May or June or July, not in February or March."

Whether Vilsack's early exit will be followed by others who can't keep up with the Clintons and McCains remains to be seen; Vilsack also faced the unique issue of being Iowa's ex-governor, minimizing his ability to earn momentum from a good performance there.

Among the "non-voting events" that candidates will have to negotiate this year are fund-raising deadlines (the first quarterly reports are due in mid-April), debates and straw polls among party activists.

Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson has said he needs to do well in the Iowa Republican straw poll this August to position himself for an attention-getting finish in the Iowa caucuses set for next January. Thompson is a low-budget candidate who is putting all his chips on Iowa, visiting often and assembling a team of respected local organizers.

"This cycle is so unique," said Thompson adviser Kevin Keane, who gauges Thompson's "buzz factor" in Iowa by the size of the crowds that come to hear him, feedback from in-state Republicans and coverage in forums such as the right-leaning Iowa blog "Krusty Konservative," which noted approvingly last week that Thompson was running an aggressive campaign and said: "Keep your eye on this guy."

Dowd said the new campaign dynamic is about a lot more than just money: A big TV budget won't make up for the failure to generate interest and excitement on the ground and through the media and the Internet.

"What will happen is all of a sudden you come to June, July, August, if a candidate hasn't moved or hasn't created (any energy), it's not as if you're going to run TV ads in Iowa and change that," Dowd said.

Aside from the cost, Feingold sees a series of problems with a campaign that accelerates this quickly. He said it forces people to make decisions about running before they know what the political climate and critical issues will be. He said it prevents candidates who are senators or governors from doing their day jobs for a very long period.

Feingold added: "It may be a trap to get started too early. There's the shelf-life issue, and there's more time where you may make a serious mistake."

Exactly how a marathon contest made up of "non-voting events" alters the process as we know it may not be clear for some time. Will it create new hurdles for frontrunners? Will it make it harder for fresh faces to stay fresh? Will it give candidates time to rise and fall - and rise and fall again? Will it make it easier, not harder, for someone like Al Gore or Newt Gingrich to jump in late and avoid the expense and pitfalls of running a long campaign?

"I confess to being puzzled by the technical implications of a presidential election cycle that will run at a high level of intensity for a full year before the first primary votes are cast," GOP commentator Tony Blankley wrote in the Washington Times on Wednesday. "I suspect that the current crop of veteran strategists and tacticians working on the various campaigns must also doubt their own instincts and rules of thumb that have served them well in prior campaigns."

In an interview Friday, Gingrich said it was a "total mistake" to assume candidates have to be running all-out at this stage, calling it "entirely psychological."

"How can you take seriously people who campaign in March of 2007, when the first vote is in January of 2008, for a job that starts in 2009?" he said.

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