Four in the Forefront

Thursday, January 31, 2008

AONCE-MUDDLED presidential campaign has sorted itself out with surprising speed in recent days. Former North Carolina senator John Edwards dropped out of the Democratic race yesterday, while former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's poor showing in his must-win state of Florida prompted him to quit the Republican field and back Arizona Sen. John McCain. These developments leave each party with essentially a two-person face-off: Hillary Clinton vs. Barack Obama for Democrats, and Mr. McCain vs. Mitt Romney for Republicans.

Mr. Edwards's combative 2008 campaign persona was not as appealing as his sunnier approach four years ago; his angry populism and repudiation of key votes from his single Senate term did not reflect well on him. But Mr. Edwards's focus on poverty was an important contribution to the public dialogue, and he advanced thoughtful proposals on issues ranging from health care to climate change.

Because the policy differences between the two remaining Democrats are relatively narrow, critical consideration must be given to who has demonstrated, over time and in the ongoing campaign, the character and judgment to succeed as president. Neither campaign has been blameless in the cheap-shot department, but the recent conduct of the Clinton campaign has not shown it in a good light. Former president Bill Clinton's comments about Mr. Obama's victory in South Carolina seemed to strike an ugly racial chord. His behavior makes it incumbent upon Ms. Clinton to give a fuller account of what role he would play in a third Clinton administration. For his part, Mr. Obama's coup -- in winning the backing of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), and Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of the slain president -- amplified the excitement generated by his candidacy. Mr. Obama's challenge, as we have noted, is to go beyond uplifting rhetoric about transcending partisan differences and demonstrate that he has the experience, wisdom and steel to translate vision into action.

With Mr. McCain's win in Florida, the Republican race has more of a clear front-runner than the Democrats', even though the Republican field, with former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, is larger. Mr. McCain's victory in South Carolina was sweet recompense for his loss there four years ago, but his Florida win showed important strengths. It was the first contest open only to registered Republicans, and Mr. McCain won over even those voters whose chief worry is the ailing economy. Mr. Giuliani got a deserved comeuppance from Florida voters who refused to reward his effort to game the primary system by sitting out the early contests. Mr. McCain's maverick stances on issues such as immigration and campaign finance reform make him suspect among some Republicans; he still faces a formidable and deep-pocketed opponent in Mr. Romney. But as the shape of the race becomes clearer, it's increasingly likely that voters in November will have a choice between two worthy opponents.

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