7 Questions as the Race for the White House Accelerates

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 2, 2007

Labor Day is the traditional starting date for presidential campaigns -- but Labor Day the year before the election?

That's the reality of the 2008 campaign, a contest that has been barreling ahead since January. The weekend will find candidates crisscrossing Iowa and New Hampshire as if the election were weeks away.

What happens from here on will matter far more than what has happened up to now, but the first eight months of 2007 have delivered on predictions that this would be one of the most interesting and consequential campaigns of modern times.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York remains the front-runner, but Barack Obama's prodigious fundraising and passionate crowds continue to make the senator from Illinois an intriguing rival. Former senator John Edwards of North Carolina has staked his hopes on Iowa, and so far Iowans remain open to him. The rest of the field is starting to make noise, though their odds remain long.

For Republicans, the contest is about to change with this week's entry of former senator Fred D. Thompson of Tennessee, who has been testing the waters so long that his toes must be wrinkled. He will join former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and maybe former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in a contest still in search of clarity and definition.

To help make sense of what has happened and where things may be heading, think of the next four months -- until January, when actual voters will finally start to make choices that count -- in terms of seven questions. For answers to them, we sought out strategists in both parties, based in Washington and around the country. Most replied by e-mail, a few spoke by phone, some had the courage of their convictions and were willing to be quoted by name, and others chose to offer candid assessments only if they were not identified.

For them -- and for the campaign itself -- tomorrow marks a moment when the pace quickens and the stakes increase. Said Carter Eskew, a longtime Democratic strategist who so far is sitting this election out: "Man, I remember that feeling when the bell rings on Labor Day for the gun lap!"

Is the Clinton campaign a true juggernaut -- or is that just what she wants everyone to believe?

Not a juggernaut, but it is the best campaign on the block right now. That's a view widely shared among Democratic strategists and emphatically asserted by some veteran Republicans sizing up the race.

"Hillary is for real, and will be difficult for any of her Democratic opponents to derail," wrote Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster who jointly conducts the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll. "She simply doesn't make mistakes and is running a pretty disciplined campaign."

Whit Ayres, another GOP pollster, put it this way in an interview: "Barack Obama has run a good campaign given his level of experience, and he is obviously a very bright man. But he is no match for Hillary Clinton and her team. They are too experienced, too professional and too tough for a candidate who has never run a serious campaign for any office before."

But no one is ready to call the Democratic race for Clinton at this point. The reasons, as outlined by both her supporters and detractors, are numerous. First, nobody wraps up a nomination by Labor Day. Ask Howard Dean about that.

Clinton is no Dean, but the point holds. Things happen unexpectedly, and as one Democratic strategist put it: "While the Clinton campaign is flawlessly ticking along, in the YouTube world of politics today, things can shift quickly. And that's where the resources and infrastructure of Obama's campaign could make a difference."

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