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In search of their ‘hockey stick moment’

To overcome White House 2008 front-runners John McCain and Hillary Clinton, the other contenders will have to get hot at just the right time.   The National Journal's Chuck Todd reports.
/ Source: National Journal

There's a slang term in the corporate world that many start-up businesses view as the Holy Grail. It's called the "hockey stick moment" — the point in a graph where a company's profits skyrocket from being comfortable but flat to a peak. Business leaders often don't realize their enterprise has hit that moment until after it's happened.

A number of presidential candidates have experienced hockey stick moments, including Jimmy Carter in 1976, George H.W. Bush in 1980, Gary Hart in 1984, both Ross Perot and Bill Clinton in 1992, John McCain in 2000 and Howard Dean in 2004.

As these examples show, hockey stick moments don't necessarily last; in some cases, they form another hockey stick on the line graph that heads in the wrong direction (e.g., Perot and Hart). But the one thing all of these "hockey stick" candidates have in common is that they burst on the political scene out of nowhere to become either the establishment candidate of their party (e.g., Clinton, Bush and Carter) or a big scare for the establishment (e.g., Dean and McCain).

This cycle, each party's presidential primary field has one establishment candidate — New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democrats and McCain for the Republicans — and a number of hockey stick hopefuls.

Three of these contenders are formalizing their candidacies this week or next. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) made his campaign more official on Monday with the decision to file formal papers [PDF]. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama (D) will announce his candidacy formally on Saturday, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) will announce his bid next Tuesday.

These three candidates have establishment-like characteristics, but in order to surpass Clinton or McCain, they'll need to get hot enough to see a hockey stick-like rise in their poll numbers. That's very hard to plan. Of the three, Romney is best positioned to have a moment like this because the expectations he starts with are quite low. Even small movements in the polls (starting with single digits and then onto double digits) can be taken as momentum.

The trickier position to be in is the one both Obama and Giuliani occupy. Giuliani has the burden of incredible poll ratings, and Obama has the burden of media expectations.

I wrote extensively last week about how Giuliani can achieve this bump. His "moment" will come if conservatives decide they need to nominate someone who's electable and who they can trust to at least not set back the conservative movement. If he can convince Republicans that he can both win the general election and mark some time for the conservative agenda, then he may see his already high personal ratings stay high. This has to happen, of course, while somehow keeping the New York press corps from dredging up his past (a far trickier thing).

Obama's candidacy is all about getting hot at the right time. With the media, Obama's already had his first "moment." It began with his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. That media attention got Obama to the point where he is right now: on the brink of breaking through to presidential front-runner.

The problem for Obama is coming up with a second act. More than a few observers grumbled about his speech to the DNC winter meeting. These folks were disappointed that Obama didn't try to set the room on fire. Instead, Obama seemed to go out of his way in the speech to downplay the excitement that's fueled his popularity.

I talked to one Obama partisan about these complaints, and he basically dismissed them as overheated expectations. This person noted that Obama can do a "rah-rah" speech anytime he wants, but he can't only do "rah-rah."

In '04, Dean had a very difficult time with the transition from passionate partisan to potential president. This is something the Obama folks are all too aware of. At the same time, the Obama camp needs to realize that in order to keep the energy level of their campaign high, they will need to feed this passion beast.

His announcement this Saturday somehow has to be both passionate and substantive, which isn't easy. Even Bill Clinton had a difficult time doing that — and, arguably, he didn't really get good at combining passion and substance until perhaps his fourth State of the Union.

Watching Hillary Clinton the past two weeks was a good reminder of just how formidable she's going to be. She has the substance down cold but lacks the passion. And yet, Hillary's expectations bar for passion is actually quite low — meaning the few times she hits the perfect note in a public venue, the media will go gaga for her (see her "evil men" joke). That's why it's smart of Hillary to make every appearance possible with the other candidates. Regardless of her performance, she's always part of the story, and one never knows when she'll have one of those moments that shows her human or passionate side.

Obama, of course, has a higher bar to clear on the passion front. But he also needs to be substantive, since the big knock against him is experience.

Clinton's very successful kickoff certainly puts added pressure on Illinois' junior senator. There's a sense that a potential band of supporters is ready to fall in love with Obama if he gives them the chance. The possibility of a "hockey stick moment" is there, but he has to do a few things to cultivate it.

A few months ago, it seemed all Obama had to do was simply show up; clearly, Clinton's fast start shows it will take a lot more from Obama than that. A contingent of media and potential supporters are ready to jump aboard, but he's got to earn it. Saturday's announcement will tell us whether Obama has the chops for the long haul.

(Editor's note: The first incarnation of this column inaccurately described the components of a hockey stick. Chuck Todd, who is originally from Miami, regrets the error.)