By Chief White House correspondent and political director
NBC News
updated 5/18/2007 4:54:49 PM ET 2007-05-18T20:54:49

As longtime readers of my column know, I live for two things: proving conventional wisdom wrong and spotting unintended consequences before they become, well, consequential.

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It strikes me that this campaign has already proven the so-called "c.w." wrong a number of times. And will no doubt do so again.

But there's also a reason wisdom becomes "conventional" because sometimes (check that) many times, the conventional wisdom is correct.

The question in this presidential campaign is which candidate will be doomed by their "conventional wisdom" baggage and which one will buck the assumptions about their weaknesses and wind up taking the oath on Jan. 20, 2009.

Each week, it seems, one of the frontrunners on either side is faced with a test regarding their “c.w.” baggage.

This week, Rudy Giuliani finally dealt head-on with the issue that many analysts believe will doom his candidacy: abortion. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the following: “The Republican Party will not nominate a pro-choice candidate for president.”

The statement, for years, has been treated as fact, thanks mostly to the decision by past pro-choice Republicans to, essentially, flip on the issue rather than test the theory.

Republicans convert
From Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush to Mitt Romney, Republicans have chosen to convert. And for a few months, it appeared even Giuliani was going to try to at least attempt some sort of redemption on the topic. By redemption, I mean, ask for forgiveness that he was and will remain reluctantly pro-choice.

But after realizing the pretzel he contorted himself into at the first Republican debate, somebody smartly got in his ear and reminded him there’s no “third way” on abortion and that abortion wasn’t going to be the make-or-break for his campaign. It was and is 9/11.

Giuliani’s performance in the 2nd debate showed why he has the support of so many conservative Republicans. Conservatives support Giuliani despite his social issue stances because, RIGHT NOW, conservatives care more about fighting a war against Islamic fundamentalism than they do about the war against their culture at home.

As long as Giuliani plays the role of “general” in this war (which by the way is a world view that is NOT shared by the Democrats), then he’ll beat back his “c.w.” baggage on abortion.

The only way Giuliani is stopped is if his strength is turned into a weakness. And that strength is leadership following 9/11. So, already, that’s one candidate who’s dumped his “c.w.” baggage.

Let's take a look at the "c.w." baggage the rest of the frontrunners are carrying...

Mitt Romney
Mitt Romney: The most obvious baggage that gets the most play is his religion. The "c.w." says a Mormon can't win the GOP nomination.

Right now, it seems as if he's doing a decent job of beating that back. If he loses the nod, it won't be because of that. If he loses, it will be because he's just flipped on too many issues and, combined with his perfect TV looks, will get transformed from innovative business leader to used car salesman.

Romney's challenge for the next six months isn't proving he's a Christian, it's proving he's an authentic conservative.

John McCain
John McCain: His "c.w." baggage, while bothersome for a general, is actually an asset in the GOP primary. The "c.w." says the guy who finishes second in the last battle always gets the nomination the next time.

But McCain's challenge is what was once an asset: electability.

He's no longer the most electable thanks to Giuliani’s strength in the polls. That’s becoming a bigger and bigger problem for McCain.

If conservatives are going to compromise, they’ll do so for a winner; McCain needs Giuliani to start tripping up.

The other “c.w.” baggage McCain carries is age, but, frankly, it’s something the press seems more focused on than the voters. And if it means McCain gets compared to Reagan, it’s not all that bad for the senator.

As for the Democrats, each has some well-known baggage, but each is also acquiring new baggage that they’ll need to figure out how to dump or counter.

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton: Her well-known “c.w.” baggage is more historical – gender and being the former first lady. It’s been written to death and frankly has probably been over-written.

But the baggage that I think is real and perhaps most troubling for her is the fact that Democrats don’t like to nominate heir apparents and don’t like to nominate establishment types.
Clinton is having a hard time proving she’s the candidate for change with Democrats. It’s her biggest challenge. If she pulls it off, she’ll be the nominee.

Barack Obama
Barack Obama: His assumed “c.w.” baggage is also something that’s been written about to death –  his race and experience. But earlier this week, Obama took on new baggage and that is the idea that he might not be tough enough to run for president.

In an interview with NBC’s David Gregory, Obama demurred at this idea he was running against Hillary Clinton. Instead, he used his “we’re all on the same team but trying out for quarterback” mantra.

But if he doesn’t begin to show signs he’s willing to run against Clinton, Democratic voters will begin to question whether he’s tough enough to take on the Republicans.

Politics ain’t beanbag, as they say, and while he regularly touts his Chicago background as proof he knows how to play hardball politics, it’s not yet enough. I think there’s no doubt he can take a punch, but can he deliver one?

John Edwards
John Edwards: His “c.w.” baggage has to do with history. That is the belief that Democrats regularly reject nominating candidates who are running for a second time.

Kennedy, Carter, Dukakis, Carter and Kerry were all first-time candidates. Gore is one of the few second-time candidates to win the Democratic nod and it wasn’t an easy road for the then-sitting VP.

Edwards has been running against his political past, whether it’s his senate record or the ’04 campaign, which is the right road for him, because again, Democratic primary voters gravitate to candidates of change, not candidates of the past or candidates with experience.

Somebody will buck their “c.w.” baggage and that somebody will become president (or at least their party’s nominee). It’s going to be interesting to see just how each tries to buck their engrained perceptions.

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