Seven questions to ask about the 2008 campaign

? 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 Illinois senator 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 Democratic 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 most be wrinkled. He will join former New York mayor Rudolph 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 – today marks a moment when the pace quickens and the stakes increase.

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

Not a juggernaut, but it is seen as 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. The reasons, as outlined by both Clinton’s supporters and detractors, are numerous. First, nobody wraps up a nomination by Labor Day. 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.”

2. Is there a Republican front-runner?

Yes. Two actually, depending on how you read the race and history: Giuliani and Romney.

By one historical parallel, Giuliani is on a path to win. That’s because every Republican since Eisenhower who has led the field in the Gallup poll taken around the Labor Day before the primaries has won the nomination. George W. Bush, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater – all led as the campaign passed the Labor Day marker.

Romney faces tough odds. No Republican in the modern era has won both Iowa and New Hampshire. If Romney manages to break that pattern, he could be hard to beat. If he fails, the calendar could open up for Giuliani or someone else.

That’s why there was such disagreement among the strategists. Some said there is no front-runner. Ayres called Giuliani the national front-runner, Romney the “insiders’ front-runner” and Thompson, who plans to formally enter the race Thursday, “a giant question mark.”

3. Is anyone on either side positioned to break into the top tier?

There was a near-unanimous view that, among Republicans, only Huckabee has the potential to do so. But there was an equally strong view that it will be awfully difficult.

On the Democratic side, the challenge is even greater. A New Hampshire-based Democrat said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is best positioned to move up. Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut is looking for a boost from his endorsement by the International Association of Fire Fighters.

But Clinton, Obama and Edwards (in Iowa, at least) take up so much space, and the two leaders have so much money, that the others face long odds, despite their solid experience and credibility.

4. Does the new, turbo-charged calendar make Iowa and New Hampshire more important – or less?

More important, unless they aren’t – and that’s not as odd as it sounds.

In the Democratic field, none of the candidates is acting as if any states matter more than Iowa and New Hampshire. Democrats say that if Clinton wins Iowa, she will be extremely difficult to stop, short of some unexpected event.

On the Republican side, the calculations are different. Giuliani’s strategy is based on reaping a big batch of delegates on Feb. 5. But the idea that he will ignore Iowa and New Hampshire has been put to rest by his burst of activity in those states.

If there is no clarity coming out of the early states, the new calendar will take hold. “The new system makes the early states really important, but you still need the money to compete in the mass of primaries that hit February 5th,” said John G. Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University.

That means alternative strategies could be winning strategies in 2008, and the real day of reckoning for Iowa and New Hampshire may be in 2012, not next year.

5. Is it too late for Al Gore or Newt Gingrich to get into the race?

In a word, yes. Not that they couldn’t jump in. But the prospects do not look bright for either.

“It’s not too late for Al Gore and Newt to get in, but it’s certainly too late for either of them to win,” Newhouse said.

Thompson’s entry means far less room for Gingrich, and the former House speaker carries very high negatives. Gore enjoys significant popularity among Democrats, but because Democrats are happy with their candidates, there is no real yearning for him to enter.

6. Do ideas matter in this election?

Yes, but no candidate has yet seized the mantle of the ideas candidate – though Edwards has certainly tried.

“Ideas do matter,” a GOP strategist said. “The American people are sick of the nonsense. They’re cynical. They’re angry, they’re sick of the status quo. … They’re looking for someone to call them to action. … I don’t think anyone has effectively done that so far.”

Dan Gerstein, a centrist Democrat and strategist, said: “The reality is both parties are brain-dead – they have no new big ideas to deal with the challenges we face today. Which is why I continue to believe that there is an opening for an independent, reform-oriented campaign to run against politics as usual and on a solutions-driven message.”

7. When do I really need to start paying attention, and should I trust the polls?

If you’ve read this far, you’re obviously paying close attention already. If you jumped to this question first, here are some thoughts from those who live and breathe campaigns.

Many strategists are skeptical of all polls right now. Some strategists said they especially distrust national polls, but there were notable dissenters. Because there will be a virtual national primary on Feb. 5, nationwide polls may tell more about the race than in past years – and they still help candidates raise money.

But even in the early states, many voters don’t get serious until much closer to the contests, as Iowa showed in 2004 and as New Hampshire has demonstrated any number of times.

One Democrat said most people could wait until a month before the Iowa caucuses to start paying close attention. But another strategist said the early calendar, the extraordinary intensity of this campaign and the high stakes mean everyone should start paying attention between now and Thanksgiving to understand the candidates.

Some voters may prefer to take their lead from results in the early states, she said, but added, “If you’re making up your own mind, you should start now.”