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Halfway home ... sort of

Barack Obama
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, R-NYC.Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
/ Source: NBC News

The summer lull provides a great opportunity to examine where things stand in the presidential primaries from a six-month perspective, rather than the six-minute to six-hour perspective that many of us have become so accustomed to these days.

When one looks at the progress (or lack thereof) that many of the candidates have shown over the last six months, one gets a slightly different sense of where each of the candidates are situated going into the second half of this year.

Think about where things were six months ago: the Barack Obama buzz was just starting but no one was quite sure what to make of it; there was speculation that Hillary Clinton was not ready to launch her campaign in February and was hoping for a spring start; Rudy Giuliani was still considered a “maybe”; Fred Thompson was making fundraising calls for John McCain; Mitt Romney and John Edwards were the two candidates making the most trips to the early states; and we had yet to hold one presidential debate.

Six debates, one drop out (remember Tom Vilsack?), $100 million in spending ($32 million from Romney alone), and $250 million in total fundraising later ($100 million just between Obama and Clinton), and the conventional wisdom of the race has radically shifted.

Let’s start with the most chaotic portion of the campaign: the fight for the Republican nomination.

The rise of Romney
Perhaps the only un-surprising outcome to date has been the rise of Mitt Romney. For those of us who have tracked his trajectory over the last few years, one could sense he was built for the long haul. He is a classic presidential candidate: he’s been thinking about it for years, he has the ambition, he has the Ozzie and Harriet family photo and he has the TV-ready looks. He is running a great conventional campaign and I use the term “conventional” as a compliment.

Romney’s now the agreed upon “leader” in Iowa and New Hampshire and, frankly, in campaign organization, thanks to the current downfall of McCain. Romney controls his own destiny, which is a position every candidate wants to be in for as long as he can.

Of the next three markers in the GOP race, it’s hard to decide which of the three is more of a surprise: the resiliency of Giuliani, the downfall of McCain or the meteoric rise of Fred Thompson.

In hindsight, I’d say the Giuliani result is the most surprising. I think many of us have underestimated his strength with some rank-n-file conservatives, thanks mostly to the view some of them have that the Iraq war is a battle in the ultimate war against Islamic fundamentalism.

There are certain parts of the GOP that strongly believe this is a fight for religious freedom (see President Bush’s Fourth of July speech in West Virginia). For these folks, Giuliani is their general. These folks are willing to put aside some of their moral value issues with Giuliani if it means keeping up this global war.

Should the GOP race come down to Giuliani and Romney, the showdown between the two for South Carolina’s conservative electorate is going to be fascinating. Neither fit the state very well, thanks to Giuliani’s social positions and Romney’s Mormonism.

The downfall of McCain
Next on the list of GOP surprises in this topsy-turvy six months is the downfall of McCain. It’s not that any of us are surprised that McCain is having problems connecting with rank-n-file Republicans, it’s that it happened so fast.

The immigration issue did far more political damage to McCain than anyone on his team imagined. Is it fatal? I don’t know. I know this: he’s no longer in charge of his own destiny and he needs his three chief rivals (Rudy, Romney and Thompson) all to implode between now and the end of the year. Is that out of the question? Of course not; the media always love a good comeback story and McCain certainly has shown to be at his best when his political fortunes are at their worst.

Finally, there’s the rise of Fred Thompson, which for some may seem like the most surprising part of the last six months but for me is the least surprising. It’s not that I somehow expected Thompson to be the surprise dark horse, it’s that I expected someone to fit the bill.

Six months ago, there was something about Romney, Rudy and McCain that screamed the party wants one more choice. And six months ago, my list of dark horse first tier Republican candidates might have included Thompson, but also would have included folks like Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (if he could only get an organization together) or even former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. 

Clearly, there was a hunger for another first tier option. Thompson is now that option.

What’s fascinating about the current Thompson boomlet is how many very smart folks in the chattering class secretly believe he’ll fall on his face. Some don’t believe he’ll have the stomach for the negative side of the campaign, some aren’t sure he wants the job bad enough to do the little things, and some just don’t believe any politician is capable of filling the ridiculously high expectations some on the right have for ol’ Fred right now.

I’ll admit to wondering about whether Thompson can pull this off for all of those reasons. The good news for Thompson is that he’s in an enviable position; he has a constituency that wants to believe and so he controls his image for the time being. The bad news: the window is closing faster than perhaps his staff believes.

Already down to two for the Dems?
The Democratic race is a bit more stable right now but how we got there from January to today has been surprising.

No one is shocked that Hillary Clinton is still the leading candidate but the most underappreciated story of the Democratic race is the rise of Obama. It’s not just the money, it’s also the fact that he’s such a solid No. 2 already. I think many of us expected Obama to be a player in this thing but I don’t think many of us thought we’d already been in a “Will it be Clinton or Obama?” conversation this early in the process.

It’s a fascinating contest of realism vs. idealism; most of the time realism defeats idealism in politics except when it doesn’t. Republicans picked idealism in ’64 and ’80 and one candidate led the party to its greatest defeat and the other led it to one of its greatest victories. That’s the thing with idealism: it’s a high risk/high reward proposition. Obama’s job for the next six months is to keep his flock of idealists excited while also reassuring the realists in the Democratic electorate that he’s ready for the job. 

Clinton has just the opposite challenge. She’s already the candidate of realism; what she needs is to create that sense of excitement around her without having to lean on Bill Clinton.

As for the rest of the Democratic field, perhaps no one had a worse six months than Edwards. He started out as the candidate no one should overlook. Now one wonders if he can hang in there. The haircut issue is silly but revealing. He’s lost control of his image and has to hurry up and get it back. The window is closing very fast for him.

It’s never easy when a candidate becomes his caricature. It happened to Gore in 2000 and Kerry in 2004 and 2006 (the joke) and that fact could give some folks pause about Edwards. Do the Democrats want to nominate someone whom the Republicans and late-night comics might so easily mock?  Should this alone be a reason to disqualify someone? No, but it’s a bigger factor than many like to admit.

What a six months. If the next six months are anything like the first, then it’s going to be a wild ride. The electorates on both sides are very uneasy about things and the uneasiness has translated into a very turbulent and unpredictable campaign that’s still having a hard time coming into focus. I just feel lucky to be along for the ride.