IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

What we don’t know (cont.)

So many things will change in the 508 days before Election Day. Here, in no particular order, are 10 things that will surely have a decisive impact on the race. By John Mercurio, National Journal.
/ Source: National Journal

One short week ago, Rudy Giuliani was the undisputed frontrunner in a 10-man race for the Republican presidential nod. Today, Mitt Romney is fast emerging as the leader of the field, especially in the early states of New Hampshire and Iowa, and new polls show Fred Thompson is gumming up the GOP's top tier. Among Democrats, John Edwards is now struggling to remain in the top tier. All of which reminds me of one of my favorite and most popular topics of discussion: What we still don’t, and can't, know about 2008.

So many things will change in the 508 days before Election Day. Here, in no particular order, are 10 things that will surely have a decisive impact on the race.

Iraq: But of course, no list is complete without it. As Boehner/McConnell/Lott et al have repeatedly suggested this month, the GOP-inspired deadline for Progress or Plan B in Iraq is, unarguably, political; new funding bills actually give Bush 'til mid-'08 to score progress in Iraq. But in a move that could put them at odds with their president, Republican presidential candidates wait 'til then to (possibly) change course. A September deadline gives them breathing room before the real race begins next spring. The candidate with the most riding on Iraq remains, of course, John McCain.

Ames Straw Poll: It’s not as big of a deal now that Rudy Giuliani and John McCain (and Jim Gilmore) have bowed out of the August 11th tally, but the resulting match-up between Romney, Sam Brownback, Tommy Thompson and Mike Huckabee will be worth watching as a test of each candidate’s true appeal among social conservatives. The second-tier candidates' decisions to openly challenge Romney’s confident claims of premature victory suggest they plan to compete aggressively for the mantle. Should they score an upset, they could rattle the top-tier candidate, in an area of considerable weakness for him (his conservative creds), just a few months before voting begins.

Bloomberg/Hagel/Unity ’08?: Mike Bloomberg and Chuck Hagel generated buzz in early May when they dined together at the Palm restaurant. A few weeks later, Hagel drew a strong GOP primary challenger that could make a Senate re-election bid in Nebraska even less appealing. Will the two GOP mavericks team up to run as independents, perhaps under the “Unity ‘08” banner? “We didn't make any deals. But I think Mayor Bloomberg is the kind of individual who should seriously think about this,” Hagel teased. “It's a great country to think about a New York boy and a Nebraska boy to be teamed up leading this nation.” While Hagel and Bloomberg are Republicans, their ’08 bid could disproportionately draw from Democrats, particularly if their nominee is Barack Obama, who relies heavily on independent voters for his early claims of electability.

Libby pardon: There are few issues Republican candidates want to disappear more these days than the prospect that Bush will pardon Scooter Libby. While the president faces an agonizing decision, ultimately he's not on a ballot in 2008; they are. Most of them have sought to curry favor with the base by backing a Libby pardon -- something they'd surely have to discuss in greater detail in a general-election campaign.

Bush: ‘Nuf said. Recent polls show he presents an unprecedented (early) drag on his party’s prospects next year, which, of course, explains why Republicans rarely mention his name. But which candidate will inevitably be tarred by association? Romney appears to have strong backing from Bush family members and associates, McCain is most tied to the president’s war, and Giuliani has most publicly defended the president. Perhaps this explains the (early) appeal of Fred Thompson?

Energy bill: Maybe Harry Reid was onto something when he tabled immigration reform last week, saying his party was far more focused on passing a comprehensive energy bill. Polls show voters care about the issues wrapped into the widely encompassing bill, including gas prices, auto standards, foreign oil dependence and, last but certainly not least, climate change. The campaign for the White House could be largely affected by whether Reid has his way, and how each of the presidential candidates currently serving in the Senate votes on the measure(s).

Newt Gingrich: Confidants of the former Speaker are increasingly skeptical he'll join the race for president. But that doesn't mean he's going quietly. What Gingrich would prefer to do, they say, is help frame the campaign debate, both within the Republican primary and the general election. "If he can do that," one Gingrich ally said this week, "he'll feel much more productive in the cycle than he would as a candidate." Whether or not he runs, sources say, look for Gingrich to raise his profile this fall.

Second-quarter fundraising: Discouraged by a second quarter of unsuccessful fundraising, I predict, at least three presidential candidates will withdraw by Labor Day. Insiders point to competitive quarters for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and continued fundraising success for Romney and Giuliani. But it's a very different story in the second tier of each party. When he joined the race six months ago, Bill Richardson urged reporters to ignore his first-quarter numbers, "but judge me on the second quarter." That was his plan then. How will he fare?

Debates: None of the five debates that have occurred so far this year have had a dramatic impact on the race. But they will; they have to. Considering the unprecedented number of candidates in this race, and the unprecedented number of forums in the next six months, the odds dramatically favor a debate "moment," or two, that dramatically transforms the campaign. My prediction: It won't directly involve Clinton; she doesn't "do" moments, at least not in situations where the dynamic is so fluid and easily manipulated by her opponents.

Endorsements: They don’t usually come attached to actual votes; just ask Al Gore and Howard Dean. But they can open doors and they give an idea of where insiders see the race heading. As of this week, McCain edges out Romney, 30 to 29, among the group of 98 top officeholders (governors, senators and members of Congress) who have picked sides in the GOP race, according to a Hotline count. Giuliani trails with 16 supporters, while Fred Thompson’s unannounced candidacy has drawn support from 12 top officeholders. The Democratic race for endorsements is far more clear cut; of the 92 top electeds, Clinton leads with 44. Obama has half as many (22), while Edwards has just 14.