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Land of the Giants

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A PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN IS NOT JUST A POLITICAL EVENT: It's a mythological narrative. There's a hero, and he or she must earn the victory somehow, overcoming obstacles, finding the strength to go on against daunting odds. The candidate doesn't have to be the Establishment favorite, doesn't have to possess the most money. The mythology states that almost anyone, with enough hard work and charm and pluck and stamina and gumption, can become the next president of the United States.

Listen to Bill Gardner, the New Hampshire secretary of state: "Ideally, we would all like a process that preserves the American Dream that anyone's son or daughter can grow up to be president. And you don't have to be the one that has the most money, or the most famous. That there's a process, and that you can start in a small place, and through the power of your character and your ideas, you have a chance."

Ideally.

But we do not live in ideal times. It's not clear that the retail route could still lead to a nomination if you're a second-tier candidate -- if your name is Huckabee or Richardson or Brownback or Dodd or Biden or something along those lines. If you're not already in the top tier, you may realistically be running for, at best, vice president, or maybe Treasury secretary.

"It's increasingly difficult for dark horses," says former Colorado senator Gary Hart, who won New Hampshire in 1984. "You're threading a needle. You gotta hit a home run."

He believes in retail politics, because "someone who's not well-known, who comes from a small state, who has no money but has a message, has something to say that's different and unique, has a chance. Unless you can do that -- in living rooms, 12 people at a time, where people listen and ask questions and make you prove your case -- then it's only going to be contests for well-known people and wealthy people. Otherwise, the Gary Harts have no chance. And, speaking selfishly, I think people like me ought to have a chance."

But it may well be that we live in a front-runner's world. The central dogma may be Survival of the Richest. Marginal candidates who used to be able to "emerge" -- potentially -- in Iowa and New Hampshire, are often giving up long before there's a single vote.

Evan Bayh: Gone. Mark Warner: Gone. Tom Vilsack: Gone. Bill Frist: Gone. All were plausible presidential candidates. None made it even as far as the first straw poll before going belly up.

Vilsack was blunt: He couldn't raise the money.

Consider the practical problems if you're a second-tier candidate. You want to emerge in Iowa and New Hampshire, but the votes are still so far away. You're a tough sell on the fundraising trail. Even if you do well in the early states, and capitalize on abundant free media, you don't have time to raise the money and lock in the TV airtime necessary to do well just two weeks later in the national primary.

In the past, 'round about this part of the cycle, you'd have candidates working living rooms, lining up donors, doing the micro-retail and the networking, all of it barely registering on the national radar. This year, they're already forced to run national campaigns. Every strategic move is a front-page story; every errant syllable winds up on YouTube.

The top-tier candidates might stop in New Hampshire for just a few hours before rocketing off to California or Florida. Between April 10 and April 20, Barack Obama traveled from Chicago to New York to Chicago to Washington to Charlotte to Florence, S.C., to Columbia to Atlanta to Boca Raton to Vero Beach to Orlando to Tampa to Chicago to Milwaukee to New Hampshire to Boston. New Hampshire was a late addition to the schedule. A drive-by.


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