It is rather remarkable that a president's State of the Union message looks likely to be overshadowed by the pre-announcement announcements and machinations of would-be successors from both parties a year before the first presidential caucus or primary.
But it underscores the reality of being a lame duck: Other than on matters related to Iraq and vetoes, the spotlight has already shifted away from President Bush to those who would replace him.
While it is titillating to examine the presidential nomination trial heats in polls, they are of limited value and influenced more by name recognition than anything else.
But early polling drives fundraising, the recruitment of operatives and volunteers and news coverage. So while they shouldn't be that important, they are because people believe they are important.
One somewhat useful approach is to ask voters about the better known candidates in terms of enthusiasm, comfort level and acceptability.
In a Cook Political Report/RT Strategies poll conducted last Wednesday through Sunday, 872 registered voters were asked about Sens. Joseph Biden, D-Del.; Sam Brownback, R-Kan.; Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.; John McCain, R-Ariz., and Barack Obama, D-Ill.; former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C.; and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, both Republicans.
For each, respondents were asked how comfortable they would be supporting the candidate. Among all voters, given the poll's 3.3 percent error margin, there was a knot of candidates near the top. Sixteen percent said they would "enthusiastically" support Clinton, 13 percent said Obama, 12 percent said McCain and 10 percent chose Edwards and Giuliani. Romney, Brownback and Biden trailed in the low single digits.
RT Strategies' Thom Riehle, who conducted the survey, said it was remarkable how little enthusiasm there seemed to be for the Republican candidates. McCain, Giuliani and Romney combined for 25 percent while the top three Democrats -- Clinton, Obama and Edwards -- had 39 percent.
It might just be that Republicans aren't terribly enthusiastic about anything right now, though that can be expected to change.
Combining enthusiastic and comfortable categories, the poll found McCain with 42 percent among all respondents, Giuliani with 39 percent, Clinton with 38 percent, and Obama and Edwards with 31 percent each.
Fifty-two percent of those who said they knew enough to judge McCain said they were enthusiastic or comfortable with him; 51 percent said that about Giuliani and 50 percent said it about Obama. Edwards was at 43 percent, and Clinton at 40 percent. This last measure is helpful in ascertaining the potential for growth in support.
Looking at the same measurements by party, 17 percent of Republicans said they were enthusiastic about McCain and Giuliani, while 6 percent said the same about Romney and 3 percent chose Brownback.
When those who were merely comfortable with the candidates were added, Giuliani's combined support rose to 58 percent and McCain's to 54 percent.
Among those Republicans who felt they could accurately judge the candidates, 71 percent were either enthusiastic or comfortable with Giuliani, compared to 64 percent for McCain and 47 percent for Romney.
Among Democrats, 33 percent were enthusiastic about Clinton, with 25 percent for Obama, 21 percent for Edwards and 3 percent for Biden. Combining enthusiastic with comfortable voters gave Clinton 66 percent, Edwards 53 percent, Obama 49 percent and Biden 15 percent.
Among Democrats who knew enough to rate the candidates, 74 percent said they were enthusiastic or comfortable with Edwards and Obama, compared with 71 percent for Clinton and 39 percent for Biden.
When it comes to the candidate voters simply cannot support, Clinton tops the field with 46 percent, followed by Edwards with 32 percent, Giuliani at 26 percent, Biden and McCain at 25 percent each, Obama at 23 percent, Romney at 19 percent and Brownback at 17 percent.
Looking only at Democratic voters, 18 percent said they could not support Biden. Sixteen percent rejected Clinton, 11 percent rejected Edwards and 10 percent said they could not back Obama.
Seventeen percent of Republicans said they could not vote for Giuliani, while 15 percent said that about McCain, 13 percent about Romney and 11 percent about Brownback.
The real value in these numbers is to compare them with newer ones in May or June, after the first round of presidential debates and after the contenders have made their first lap around the course for those who care enough to pay attention this early.
At that point, rising or falling enthusiasm, comfort and acceptability, can actually be harbingers of where each of these candidacies is headed.