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Political playoffs

With 19 candidates (so far), and too many debates to count, even the politically obsessed are having trouble sorting things out. Who these people anyway? Which of them are competing for the same shelf space? To help simplify things, and of course to pay homage to the start of the NBA Finals, I offer my first tournament-bracket guide to the 2008 presidential race.
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With 19 candidates (so far), and too many debates to count, even the politically obsessed are having trouble sorting things out. Who are these people anyway? Which of them are competing for the same shelf space? To help simplify things, and of course to pay homage to the start of the NBA Finals, I offer my first tournament-bracket guide to the 2008 presidential race.

I’ve divided the conferences (Democrats and Republicans) into pairs. To advance in the tournament, candidates will have to win their respective first-round matchups — in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina or, in the case of Democrats, Nevada. Winners move on to the Big Dance next Feb. 5, the mega/giga/tera national assemblage of primaries that is likely to decide the nominees.

WASHINGTON - JULY 28: U.S. Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) (C) speaks as (L-R) Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) listen during a news conference on Capitol Hill July 28, 2005 in Washington, DC. The congressmen talked about H.J.Res.55., legislation titled \"Homeward Bound\" that requires President George W. Bush to develop and implement a plan for the withdrawal of U.S. armed forces from Iraq. Pictured on a poster are U.S. servicemen killed in Iraq. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)Alex Wong / Getty Images North America

Surveying the conferences, it’s remarkable how neatly the candidates fall into their first-round pairings. The lone exception is Rep. Ron Paul, the vehemently anti-war GOP candidate from Texas, of all places. A Libertarian, he is a one-man play-in game, a bracket unto himself — unless Sen. Chuck Hagel plunges in.

Since the Republicans are debating on CNN tonight in New Hampshire, I’ll start with them. Although Sen. Fred Thompson isn’t officially in the race, and therefore won’t be in Manchester, I include him in the pairings. He formed an exploratory committee — evidence of his desire. He did not renew his contract with “Law and Order” on NBC — proof that he indeed is getting in.

Republicans Bracket

  • Northeast Former Flaming Libs
Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney pauses for applause during an address at the Indiana Republican Party Spring Dinner in Carmel, Ind., Friday, April 20, 2007. (AP Photo/Tom Strattman)Tom Strattman / AP
Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, and Republican presidential hopeful, holds a news conference at the Nasdaq stock market Wednesday, March 28, 2007, in New York. Giuliani received the endorsement of Steve Forbes, president and CEO of Forbes, Inc., Wednesday. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)Mark Lennihan / AP

This is Red Sox-Yankees in another forum, pitting “two formers” against each other: Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. They are following opposite routes to the same goal: the forbearance, if not the outright enthusiasm, of the GOP’s religious base even tough neither man is an Evangelical Christian. Romney approaches these voters on bended knee, his social-issue positions revamped from top to bottom. Rudy, sticking to his guns, is appealing to their love of stout (even authoritarian) crusader leadership.

  • Tough-Guy Senatorial Bush Backers
(NYT17) PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- April 25, 2007 -- CAMPAIGN-MCCAIN-4 -- Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) kicks off his presidential campaign in Portsmouth, N.H., on Wednesday, April 25, 2007. McCain began his second bid for the White House on Wednesday by embracing the war in Iraq but distancing himself from six years of White House rule. (Erik Jacobs/The New York Times)Erik Jacobs /The New York Times/ / NYTNS
RICHMOND, VA - JUNE 2: Actor and lawyer Fred Thompson speaks during the Republican Party of Virginia's 2007 Commonwealth Gala June 2, 2007 in Richmond, Virginia. Thompson, a former Republican Tennessee Senator, has been taking steps to indicate a possible bid for the 2008 nomination to be the Republican Party's candidate for U.S. President. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Fred ThompsonBrendan Smialowski / Getty Images North America

Sen. John McCain is the ultimate peace-through-strength guy in the Senate, an all-out defender of the aims of the war in Iraq. Fred Thompson played a somewhat similar character on TV: Arthur Branch, the no-nonsense D.A. McCain these days is in a war of words with Romney over immigration, but the senator’s real natural antagonist in the political jungle is Thompson, especially since both are actively seeking the support of George Bush’s financial network. Early in their respective careers, the two men were Richard Nixon protégés. Both are former outsiders now pursuing an inside route. In the old days, they were like Jack Kerouac, barreling around in vehicles of independence: McCain’s bus, Thompson’s pickup.

  • Back-to-the-Future Main Street Cultural Throwbacks
Republican president hopeful U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, of Kansas, addresses a group of central Mississippi Republicans during an informational speech in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2007. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)Rogelio V. Solis / AP
Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee is seen during a campaign stop in Concord, N.H., Wednesday, March 14, 2007.(AP Photo/Jim Cole)Jim Cole / AP

Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee brim with defiantly down-home unassuming traditionalism, and make right-to-life views central to their pitch. In both cases, the cornpone masks considerable intellectual and political savvy, just as the Grand Ole Opry hid its sales and marking sophistication behind a Minnie Pearl “Howdee!”

  • Resentfully Underappreciated Former Governors
MILWAUKEE - APRIL 04: Former Wisconsin Governor Tommy G. Thompson announces he will seek the Republican nomination for president during a rally at Messmer High School April 4, 2007 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Following the announcement Thompson headed to the airport to catch a flight for a campaign stop in Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Tommy G. ThompsonScott Olson / Getty Images North America
Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore formally announces his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination Thursday, April 26, 2007, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)Charlie Neibergall / AP

Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore have much in common, including a record of accomplishment as state administrators, and a long, loyal but somewhat strained history with George W. Bush, with and for whom they both worked at one time or another. Both men tend to think of themselves as practical, governing conservatives, whose prosaic accomplishments have not been sufficiently recognized.

  • Fence-Loving Anti-Immigrant Western House Guys
Presidential hopeful and U.S. Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA) speaks at the International Association of Fire Fighters presidential forum held in Washington D.C. on March 14, 2007.Jocelyn Augustino/redux / Redux
U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., speaks during the Republican party of Iowa's Abraham Lincoln Unity Dinner, Saturday, April 14, 2007, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)Charlie Neibergall / AP

Representatives Duncan Hunter of California and Tom Tancredo of Colorado are two peas in the Republican pod on many issues, but particularly on immigration. Hunter, of San Diego, is the man most responsible for the fence on the border near his hometown; Tancredo takes a back seat to no man in his determination to stop the flow of illegal (Latino) immigration.

Democrats Bracket

  • Non-White-Male, Senate-Based Front-runners
Democratic presidential hopeful, U.S. Sen., Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., right, and Rev. Al Sharpton, left, look on during the 9th annual National Action Network convention Friday, April 20, 2007 in New York. With black voters a key part of the Democratic Party base, Sharpton's gathering attracted almost all the major Democratic presidential contenders. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)Frank Franklin Ii / AP
epa00990730 U.S. Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama (Democrat/Illinois) delivers a speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on what will be his foreign policy if elected president, in Chicago, Illinois, USA 23 April 2007. Obama called for ending the war in Iraq with phased redeployment of U.S. troops and establish tough benchmarks for progress, rebuild the military, stop the spread weapons of mass destruction and rebuild alliances with other nations. EPA/TANNEN MAURYTannen Maury / EPA

It is a testament to changing times, to the societal digestive powers of America — and, some say, to the Democrats’ instinct for their own jugular — that the party’s front-runners are a stoical former first lady despised by half the country and an African-American senator with the middle name of Hussein. Still, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama are formidable talents, and their presence at center stage gives the Democrats a chance to be the party of the future in a multidimensional 21st century world. If the issue is change, is Hillary’s gender enough to make that case? If the challenge is to unite the country, does Obama have the strength to match his smile? Hillary has the machine; Obama has the dream.

  • Southern/Southwestern Outsiders Who Were Insiders
NEW YORK - APRIL 19: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democratic presidential hopeful, speaks at the 9th Annual National Action Network Convention April 19, 2007 in New York City. Richarson and other candidates, which has inc;uded former U.S. Sen. John Edwards and will include Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama later in the week, are given the opportunity to highlight their Civil Rights credentials at the annual event organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton. (Photo by Stephen Chernin/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Bill RichardsonStephen Chernin / Getty Images North America
Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards receives a standing ovation from Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and the crowd following his speech at the Michigan Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner at Cobo Center in Detroit, Saturday, April 21, 2007. (AP Photo/Gary Malerba)Gary Malerba / AP

Gov. Bill Richardson and John Edwards have seen Washington from the inside — the former as a Clinton Cabinet member, the latter as a U.S. senator.  Now they are back home, in New Mexico and North Carolina, respectively, claiming to speak truth to the Power they once were part and parcel of. The son of a Mexican and the son of a mill worker, each cites his personal experience, and his regional roots, as central to his candidacy.

  • Distinguished Senior Senators with Grit and Blarney
Presidential hopeful Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., waits to be introduced during the 9th annual National Action Network convention Thursday, April 19, 2007 in New York. Democratic presidential contenders are scrambling for support in what's being dubbed the Al Sharpton primary.This election, the high-profile Sharpton, fresh from the fight over Don Imus' derogatory remarks, is attracting all the party's major candidates this week for his annual National Action Network convention. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)Frank Franklin Ii / AP
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., talks with firefighters in North Las Vegas, Friday, April 13, 2007. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)Isaac Brekken / AP

Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, friends and rivals, have been in the U.S. Senate, collectively, for more than half a century. Both are exemplars of the best of the Irish-American political mind at work: savvy, delighting in life and its ironies, lovers of amusing characters and healthy combat. Both know a lot about the world, having applied their street smarts to the planet entire. Are they both a tad too “senatorial” — meaning that they spend too much time talking about markups and moving legislation? Of course. There is not a shred of naiveté in either one. These days, that is a good credential.

  • Anti-war Grass-roots (Tom) Paines-in-the-Neck
NEW YORK - APRIL 21: Congressman and Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and wife Elizabeth listen to a speaker during the Ninth Annual National Action Network Convention, April 21, 2007 in New York City. Democratic presidential candidates Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) attended the conference. (Photo by Stephen Chernin/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Dennis Kucinich;Elizabeth KucinichStephen Chernin / Getty Images North America
LAS VEGAS - MARCH 24: Democratic presidential candidate and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel speaks during a health care forum at the Cox Pavilion at UNLV March 24, 2007 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT), Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson also attended the forum. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Mike GravelEthan Miller / Getty Images North America

Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Alaska Gov. Mike Gravel speak directly from and to the out-of-Iraq, never-should-have-gone-into-Iraq core of the Democratic Party. The televised debates are a special godsend to them and, some would argue, to a party that needs to have a real, soul-searching debate about how, if at all, its foreign policy would fundamentally differ from that of George W. Bush. Choose your literary reference: Banquo’s Ghost or Greek Chorus. Either way they are a nagging conscience, posing questions that the soundbiters out front don’t want to answer.

So that's the lineup for now. I'll have to redo the whole thing if Al Gore gets in, of course. But he's a conference of his own.