01/25/2007 11:30 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

And They're Off

It's been a busy time in the lives of the would-be presidents. As Kerry finally took a pass, Obama, Clinton, Dodd, Richardson and Brownback were joining Edwards, Kucinich, Biden, McCain, Giuliani, Romney and a half dozen more already in the race. The major parties could field twenty five candidates.

It's a lot of people. Picture the new debate rules: everyone makes opening remarks, then a short intermission followed by closing remarks; no more anecdotes about 'real people' the candidates have stumbled across; no more compound sentences. Actually, that last one's a good idea. If we had it in 2000 Gore might have won by so much Jim Baker couldn't have stolen the election.

Some things don't change. The media will cover at most four candidates. Until someone does something lurid, every story will be about money or polls and be delivered in the tone of a sports announcer who hates all the players: "Coming onto the field Hillary 'Rodham' Clinton, a six year veteran out of Wellesley, coming off a dismal season with the Senators..."
Some things do change. Who'd have guessed a year ago that the leading Republicans-- McCain, Giuliani and Romney-- would be so repellent to evangelicals? McCain and Romney are doing all they can to rectify that, but McCain's libertarian streak and Romney's Mormonism are bitter pills for evangelicals to swallow.

McCain's truckling to Falwell and tub thumping for Bush may finish him fast. Loyal dogs that they are, Republicans say they're for the war, yet his support of it drives his numbers down among them. Democrats thought it didn't matter who they picked because no one could beat McCain. They are starting to think anyone can beat him, a dangerous, if liberating, analysis.

Both parties harbor deep doubts about the electability of their front runners. The Democrats' doubts are mostly personal: Barack's inexperience, the legions of Hillary haters. Republicans worry about McCain and Giuliani and that their party is so insular and extreme it may be incapable of picking a winner.

Crowded fields and short calendars are tough on underdogs. Too bad. After Bill Clinton, Chris Dodd may be the most gifted politician of his generation. Eloquent, charming and shrewd, Dodd could talk a dog off a meat wagon; if he lasts till the debates he has a shot. Bill Richardson is a governor with the resume for the job; Energy Secretary, U.N Ambassador, Congress. In old school calculus, he's a twofer; an Hispanic hailing from a lately bluish Southwest. Both men's polls are at sea level. They'll have to figure out soon how to stand out in a crowd.

Polls show Clinton in trouble in Iowa and New Hampshire but still leading nation wide. Some say liberals hate her so much she can't be nominated. Some say conservatives hate her so much she can't be elected. In earlier days, the right painted her as a wild eyed liberal. Now both sides paint her as a steely eyed, opportunist.

What height and speed are to a basketball player, a calculating mind is to a politician. All our best presidents were supreme opportunists: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR. The issue is where and how you apply your gifts.

Hillary's real problem is she isn't a very good opportunist. She's transparent and her basic take on the country is dated. Squandering her talent on old diversions like flag burning, she misses big chances; to move beyond the culture wars; to end war in Iraq.

On electability she has lately caught a break. Her favorability ratings are more or less static but her general election vote share is up. It's tough to argue that a candidate who leads the field is unelectable.

Much depends on what Obama has to say. So far he's shown little appetite for defining himself beyond the implicit promise of his own character and personality. It may be why, after an initial burst, he's stalled in the polls. He says he'll heal old rifts. He should focus on solving old problems.

A short primary calendar maximizes the influence of money. It favors any one skilled at the endless recitation of empty phrases consultants call "message discipline." And it favors frontrunners.

Republican zealots suspect McCain, Giuliani and Romney of moderation. If they can make the charge stick, the race will open up and for once their contest will be more interesting than the Democrats'.

Democrats won't have a real race without a real debate. On big issues-- Iraq, health care, global warming-- voters want concrete plans. Either the leaders don't have any or they're afraid to say what they are. A candidate with convictions and courage could break that race open too. For a real opportunist, it's the chance of a lifetime.