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In search of a frontrunner

NBC Political Director Chuck Todd says the most remarkable thing about this primary campaign so far is how unconventional the wisdom has become.
/ Source: NBC News

Everything about Campaign 2008 is moving at a break neck pace. From the campaign calendar (nominees by Feb. 5, 2008) to candidate announcements (the first one came in Nov. of 2006!)to displaced frontrunners (which just happened this week).

Three months ago, the 2008 primary campaigns were being framed by political strategists and media analysts as essentially sub-primaries in search of alternatives to the two frontrunners -- Hillary Clinton for the Democrats and John McCain for the Republicans.

Over the course of the last few weeks, there have been hints that this framing was probably not going to be right. And then, with a bang, the fundraising reports came out and sure enough we learned this frame was wrong. In fact, it was very wrong. Because as of this writing, there's one conclusion that's impossible to avoid when it comes to handicapping either party's presidential primary: there are no frontrunners.

Think about it. How can any one candidate lay claim to frontrunner status in either party primary right now? Hillary Clinton may lead in national polls, but she trails John Edwards in Iowa caucus polls, though narrowly. And most importantly, she no longer is the financial juggernaut that many analysts expected her to be. If rumors of Clinton's primary fundraising are true, it's likely Barack Obama outraised her for the quarter.

On the Republican side, the national poll leader, Rudy Giuliani, is actually trailing in some New Hampshire polls. He made only his second significant trip to Iowa this week and finished second in the money. The money leader for the Republicans, Mitt Romney, just registered 3% in the most recent Gallup poll. And then there's John McCain, who had been the presumed frontrunner in the pre-season run-up to the start of this campaign but came in a disappointing third in this week's financial primary.

So where does this leave us? We're in the midst of what could be the most open and unpredictable presidential contest of our lifetimes.

The Democrats
Let's start with the Democrats where Barack Obama is sending shockwaves throughout the Democratic establishment, not seen since, well, the days of Howard Dean. But unlike Dean, Obama's money is coming early and often and from more traditional sources. Obama's shocking haul is very worrisome to Clinton folks for a number of reasons.

For one thing, Obama has successfully punctured the myth that Clinton is the inevitable nominee. In fact, there is concern among some of Clinton’s backers that a segment of her financial supporters may start giving to Obama simply to hedge their bets. If Clinton is no longer seen as inevitable in the key cocktail party circuits of New York, L.A. and D.C., then raising funds in the 2nd quarter from the big donors is a lot easier for Obama and a lot harder for Clinton.

That said, where there's adversity, there's opportunity. No modern presidential nominee has ever sailed to a nomination without hitting a pothole or two. In some ways, the Clinton campaign ought to be thankful that they've hit their rough patch this early. The burden of expectations has weighed heavily on Clinton ever since John Kerry officially conceded to George W. Bush in 2004. Now with more than eight months before the Iowa caucuses, someone else has to share the glare of the spotlight. That isn't the worst thing for Team Clinton.

Obama has benefited by not being Clinton. He's the new guy, a fresh face. She's the establishment, the heir apparent. Americans (particularly Democratic primary voters) love an underdog and Obama has exceeded what little has been expected of him as a candidate. But what if the roles become reversed?

For as good as the Obama campaign feels today, they should be preparing themselves for a whole new level of scrutiny. For weeks, Obama's primary foes have been complaining the he gets an easier ride. That he's never pressed for details or that he gets more leeway on his Iraq stances than the rest of the candidates.

There's some truth to those complaints. And now with Obama proving that he's "a" frontrunner, he's going to get more scrutiny in a higher profile environment. And he's also going to have to answer questions -- about every day events -- that he may have been able to avoid just a few weeks ago.

As for the rest of the Democratic field, there's both a danger and an opportunity in this recalibration of the race. For one thing, the fact there is no single frontrunner means there really is an opportunity for a third or even fourth candidate to break through. If candidate A (Clinton) and candidate B (Obama) get too nasty, then candidate C (Edwards or Richardson) could slide in, particularly in Iowa. Also, the more open the nomination appears, the more doors that open for candidates not named Clinton and Obama.

Now, the danger is that the Clinton v. Obama storyline simply becomes too compelling and drowns out the rest of the candidates. The national media is never comfortable covering a multi-candidate field and the sooner it gets down to two candidates, the better as far as some news organizations are concerned.

The candidates not named Clinton or Obama need to hope that either the two high profile candidates tear each other apart, or one of the big two goes into perpetual a free fall at some point, allowing the media to find another foil.

What I'm not 100% sure about is which candidate the rest of the field would like to see fall first. It depends on the candidate. Edwards and Dodd probably like their chances as the alternative to Obama. Would that make Edwards and Dodd more interested in seeing Clinton fall sooner? Then again, Richardson might believe he matches up better as an alternative to Clinton, making an Obama fall at some point in his best interest. Talk about your three-dimensional chess.

The Republicans
As for the Republicans, many reports are giving the impression that the biggest fundraiser was Mitt Romney. In pure dollars, that's true. But from where I sit, the biggest single group of Republican donors appears to be the folks who chose not to give. By my count, a good $15-$25 million in Bush money from early '99 and '03 has yet to show up in any bank account belonging to McCain, Romney or Giuliani.

These are folks that appear to be waiting for an alternative (say Fred Thompson?) or a better sales pitch from one of the active frontrunners.

If you're Fred Thompson, the fact that there is a bunch of unaccounted for GOP money has to be an intriguing enticement. Seed money won't be hard to find for any Republican who makes the case they can win.

I think Giuliani was awfully close to starting to turn some of these Bush donors his way only to have the Thompson boomlet of a few weeks ago slow things down. My guess is that these same unaccounted for Bush donors are the folks McCain's camp thought they could get. It's among this group that McCain needs to perform well in the next fundraising quarter or he's going to face even more bad press than he's received this week.

All in all, the most remarkable thing about this primary campaign so far is how unconventional the wisdom has become. Hillary isn't inevitable, Obama appears to be electable, Republicans are open to Rudy, Republicans might not simply fall in line behind McCain... I could go on and on.

I can't wait to find out what next bit of conventional wisdom turns out to be wrong because this campaign easily has more twists and turns left in it.