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Soon we'll see who in '08 field can take a hit

Michael Tackett
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

It's a long way to the coronation.

Barack Obama is finding that out. So are Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney. And Hillary Clinton knows the drill better than any of them.

The kick-the-tires phase of a presidential campaign normally starts in the summer of the year before the actual campaign begins. No longer. This campaign has started earlier, cost more and been more brutish than any in at least the last 50 years. And along with it, the time for the journalistic dissection has moved up as well.

"There is absolutely nothing in the world that can prepare you for running for the presidency," said Chris Lehane, a former spokesman for Vice President Al Gore. "And so, in this first part, people talk about your `Welcome to the NFL moment,' when you get hit in an NFL game for the first time and it is harder than you have ever been hit in your life. A lot of candidates are going through that."

If you are Obama, that means everything from your highflying stocks to your low-lying parking tickets gets scrutiny. And it should. Investment wizard Peter Lynch famously said that you should invest in what you know, and that if you couldn't describe what a company did in a simple sentence you shouldn't invest in it.

Even with his Ivy League degrees, Obama had very little experience in biotechnology or satellites before he came to the U.S. Senate. Yet he invested in both, on a friend's advice, and found himself on the wrong side of the transaction, both financially and politically.

And those parking tickets? Just to clean out all the lint from the cuff, he satisfied his debt to the great coffers of Cambridge before formally launching his presidential campaign. What about the line on the Illinois bar application that asks if you have paid up? How did he check that box? Does being a scofflaw disqualify you from being commander in chief?

Giuliani will have far more difficult questions to answer. He would be the first to score the nuptial hat trick by being married three times. The first to hit the buck-raking circuit before he sought the White House instead of after (though Newt Gingrich could join him). And the first to build multimillion-dollar businesses leveraging the homeland security industrial complex before seeking to lead it. If the former New York mayor really is serious about his campaign for the White House, he'd best be prepared for the audit of his life.

McCain's issues are likely to be more personal. He flooded reporters with scores of pages of medical documents during his last dance for the nomination in 2000. McCain, 70, has had some medical issues since then and would be the oldest person ever elected should he win in November 2008. Will he still be so open this time around?

Romney has a lifetime in business, which means he has a lifetime in dealing with transactions on paper. Back up the truck for that first document dump that is aimed at dissecting just what a management consultant really does. He also had a star turn saving the Winter Olympics and that campaign he wishes he could forget when he challenged Ted Kennedy in 1994 and, at times, tried to run to Kennedy's left.

While folks such as Obama are new to the movie, Hillary Clinton has an advanced degree in the combat of the permanent campaign. But many of her trials came during the heat of the primary season, such as in the winter of 1992 in New Hampshire. Remember, if you will, when Bill Clinton had to fend off revelations about a draft board letter and breathy allegations of an affair leveled by Gennifer Flowers. The Clintons were so deft that not only did they bat back those allegations, they made finishing second in that primary seem like a 50-state sweep.

The fixation on the Clintons only continued when they took office. It started with things such as her investment in cattle futures, the tragic suicide of Vincent Foster and the secretive health-care task force, not to mention that young intern who caught the president's wandering eye.

Nothing stopped them.

And part of the reason they prevailed was the way they fought back. The Obama campaign seems to have taken good notes, because so far, it also has shown the ability to counterpunch, to leave no accusation unanswered and sometimes to respond with disproportionate force.

"All these people are going to get nicked up in a significant way," Lehane said. "What you really see is who handles this the best. Are they open and transparent? Are they willing to deal in a straightforward way?

"I think it is obscenely early for someone like Obama, and the test is how he manages the process of trying to live up to the expectations that people have. If he can, then he's a once-in-a-lifetime candidate. Everyone is sort of looking for the next Bobby Kennedy. But if Bobby Kennedy were running today, he wouldn't be Bobby Kennedy."

___

ABOUT THE WRITER

Michael Tackett is the Chicago Tribune's Washington Bureau chief. Readers may send him e-mail at mtackett at tribune.com.


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