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President 2008: ready or not

Eric Black
Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

MINNEAPOLIS - Do you have the feeling that the 2008 presidential race has charged across the frontier into the long-predicted moment when the governing never really begins because the campaigning never really ends?

If so, you are not alone. And there's some basis for this feeling. But be careful not to mistake a trend that has been building since the 1960s or `70s for what CNN calls "breaking news."

Yes, we are in the age of the permanent campaign," said presidential scholar George Edwards of Texas A&M. That means politicians in campaign mode seek to draw sharp contrasts with their opponents for short-term political advantage. They box themselves into positions that might limit their ability to compromise or change after they win office. They are bound to run everything they say and do through a calculus of their political interest, which might be different from the national interest.

But permanent campaign mode started years ago, decades, really, Edwards said. Certain campaign season landmarks will occur earlier this year than ever before, but not by much. "I don't think there's anything about this cycle that constitutes a sea change," he said.

It's 20 months before Election Day. Eighteen presidential candidates have more or less declared and are running full time (not to mention two, Sen. Evan Bayh and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who already have managed to get in and get out).

We've already had the first TV ads aired (by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, in key early-primary states), the first debate (not really a debate, but a Feb. 21 joint appearance by most of the Democratic field in Nevada), and the "money primary" is already so far along that Vilsack dropped out entirely (according to him) because he couldn't keep up with the top fundraisers.

The first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses and the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary will be held on the earliest dates ever. Several big states (California, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey) are seeking to move their primary dates to Feb. 5, creating the biggest Super Tuesday ever. So many delegates will be in play that the race for the nominations might be over in early February.

But here are some of the reasons that underlie political scientist Edwards' belief that these events don't represent a sea change.

Candidacies that are launched two years before Election Day are nothing new. On this date in the previous presidential cycle, six Democrats were already declared candidates for president. As far back as the 1976 cycle, Jimmy Carter declared his candidacy and was campaigning full time before the end of 1974. And he was not the first one in that race.

As for the early onset of intraparty debates, by this date in the previous cycle, the Democratic field had already made several non-debate joint appearances (compared with one so far this year.)

Yes, the Jan. 14 Iowa caucuses will set an earliness record, but by only five days.

To really appreciate how the endless campaign has steadily become the norm, look at the New Hampshire primary. From 1916 to 1972, New Hampshire always had the first primary, and always on a date within the first two weeks of March. In 1976, it crossed for the first time into February. For seven cycles, it floated around in February. In 2004 New Hampshire crossed the frontier into January. This cycle's date of Jan. 22 sets the earliness record by a margin of five days over last cycle's date of Jan. 27.

If several states move primaries to Feb. 5, the nomination contests could reach an early conclusion. But Super Tuesday, the intersection of many primaries on the same day, goes go back to 1984.

In 2004, 10 states, including California, New York and Minnesota, held primaries on March 12, which turned out to be the last meaningful day of the race for the Democratic nomination, as John Edwards withdrew.

Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia political scientist and pundit, has been decrying the front-loading of the primary schedule and calling for a complete overhaul, in which a few small states (chosen by lottery so it wouldn't always be Iowa and New Hampshire) could hold the earliest primaries or caucuses in March.

The rest of the states, grouped by geography, would hold regional primaries, one a month, from April through June. The order of the regions would also vary by lottery.

The problem with front-loading, according to Edwards, is that only candidates who start out with name recognition, organization and money can compete in so many widely scattered states at once. The best candidate could be someone who starts with fewer of those assets, "but that candidate can't emerge if everything is front-loaded."

University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs agreed with Edwards that the 2008 cycle represents small steps deeper into permanent campaign territory. But they also agreed that the permanent campaign is unhelpful to good government.

"Governing is more and more important, and the window for governing without having to filter every statement and every vote through electoral considerations is shorter and shorter," Jacobs said.

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