Ready or not, campaign '08 has arrived

Many Americans are probably not ready to think about a presidential election that is 20 months away. A person could graduate, start a job, or get married in that time. A country could end, or start, a war. Is there really much to say at this early stage?

Actually, yes. People may not be ready for campaign season, but like a baby that's arrived early, it's here. News is being reported. Trends are being set. They deserve notice, and in some cases, correction.

For starters, Americans can appreciate the quality of this field of candidates. The crop is substantial – experienced in leadership, in domestic and foreign policy, and inspiring, to boot. And that's true for both parties.

What's not so nice are the first signs of candidate sniping. The tiresome tactic of attack, which seems to work but mostly just disgusts, came into play last month. On the Democratic side, the Clinton and Obama camps went at it, and on the GOP side, John McCain exchanged verbal missiles with Vice President Cheney.

When candidates or their PR machines go on the offensive, the distinction has to be made between personal attack (not acceptable), and legitimate questioning of behavior and policy positions. Democratic candidate Bill Richardson got it right when, in the middle of the Clinton-Obama melee, he suggested that Democrats pledge not to attack each other.

Another troublesome development: big money, really BIG. The two eventual nominees may raise and spend $1 billion between them. The presidential campaign may also well be the first without public funds since that option was established after Watergate. The problem with this is that (a) big private money can tempt political favors and (b) candidates waste a lot of time raising money.

Thankfully, some countertrends are at work. The three leading candidates of both parties have agreed to identify their top fundraisers, known as "bundlers," for the scads of small donations they tie together. That's a welcome personal pledge of transparency, but it should be required.

And the Federal Election Commission has decided that a candidate can return donations collected now for the general election if opting later to use public funds. This opens the door a crack for public money, but it could be wider still if Congress reviewed the outdated limits on public funds that have caused the 2008 candidates to so far reject this option for the primaries.

Finally, there is the campaign calendar itself. By this time next year, it could be all but over – with the primaries, that is. Tired of being overshadowed by early-birds Iowa and New Hampshire, as many as 23 states could advance their primaries to Feb. 5 so that they, too, can influence nominee selection. That broad public input is healthy, but it also has a huge downside. What voter wants to endure the nine long months of general campaigning that would follow?

The same could be said for what is now a two-year campaign cycle (the first candidate announced last November). On the other hand, the longer cycle allows room for possible late entrants, such as Al Gore and Newt Gingrich, to jump in. That ups the competition – and suspense.

Think it's too early to pay attention to the 2008 race? Think again. •

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