I caught the last half of the announcement speech of Sen. Barack Obama this morning, live from Springfield, Ill., at the old statehouse. The site was symbolic, evoking the history of Abraham Lincoln, who served eight years there, and Obama's own history as a state legislator. And, man, that guy can speak!
My thoughts on the candidates:
Sen. Barack Obama: Obama's candidacy is being called the first by an African American who is mainstream and who has a legitimate chance at claiming the nomination and perhaps the presidency. By all measures, he is a rock star, and he is smart to make his run while his popularity is rising. Maybe I am a traditionalist, but I like my presidential candidates to have some experience as an executive or as a legislator on the national level. A good speech and a lot of heart both help me feel good about being a Democrat and an American, but when it comes time to mark a box, I want some experience in there. My prediction is really that he will flame out. A combination of the liberalism of the Democratic primary voters versus his moderate positions (especially involving faith), the split of the black vote (very loyal to Clinton and Gore) and the fact that he has not continued to increase in popularity since he announced he was interested in running all point toward an exit before the convention.
Sen. Hillary Clinton: She's been labeled the front-runner by the media, but I don't think that means a heck of a lot with a year before anyone starts actually voting. She has a long time to screw up her campaign. I do believe the campaign is hers to lose, though. So far it seems like it is Hillary and then everyone else. She is far to conservative for me as a primary voter, and I think she is far more valuable to the nation as a legislator than as an executive. Still, it would be awesome to see her campaign against whomever the Republicans put up.
John Edwards: This is th guy who has been running for president pretty much since he lost the race with John Kerry in 2004. He should be the front-runner. He has focused sharply on domestic issues such as poverty and has kept his profile high. He has the experience of a national campaign -- both his primary campaign and as the vice presidential candidate last time around. He has the strongest network in the first caucus state of Iowa, and he should be very popular in the second primary state of South Carolina -- at least enough to offset the black vote that might go to Obama or Clinton. I think Edwards seems to have maintained his centrist roots while beefing up his populist credentials. He could be the tested alternative people turn to if Obama and Clinton flame out.
Vice President Al Gore: I wouldn't count out the 2000 nominee. He's had a great year -- the go-to guy for all things global warming, a runaway hit movie in "An Inconvenient Truth," nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on global climate change. With all that, why would he want to get back into presidential politics? Well, to claim what was rightfully his from 2000. Gore could be a nice safe alternative -- tested, sharper than 2000, refocused. How cool would it be if he announced his candidacy if he gets to make an acceptance speech at the Academy Awards. Maybe that would be a reason for Academy voters to propel the film to the stage.
Gov. Bill Richardson: The New Mexico governor has the best resume of any candidate in the field after Gore -- Latino governor of a swing state, congressman, ambassador, international day-saver. He's still the one people turn to for negotiations with North Korea. He's been on the short list for veep twice. He's also the kind of candidate the Dems should be turning to -- people actually out in the trenches working on the issues that American voters think are important, such as health care and immigration. New Mexico is also a state that will be crucial for the Democrats in what is finally shaping up to be a Southwestern strategy. Holding the 2008 convention in Denver was also a smart move. Richardson is in a position to look like the one who can say,"Been there, done that." If he doesn't get the nomination, Obama or Clinton or Edwards or Gore should definitely pick him as a running mate. He's golden.
Gov. Tom Vilsack: The former Iowa governor was a veep short-lister in 2004, a moderate who has a record of success in a Midwestern state. Problem is, outside Iowa, where he obviously has great name recognition for the early caucus, he will have a really hard time getting any coverage in the shadow of the big stars.
Sen. Joe Biden: Dude, it was over before it began. This is a year when you have to be a star and dig out a niche. The niche he dug was for someone who can't articulate his message and chokes on his own foot on the same day he announced he was running. Get out now and dust off the resume for Secretary of State.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich: The fringe lefties love this guy, but he is a non-starter. There are other anti-war candidates, and his main role is to keep everyone honest. Bless him for running and for standing up for his convictions. Someone has to.
Sen. Chris Dodd: The Connecticut senator may have had a chance in 2004, and his connections as a former chair of the DNC would be helpful, but come on. He's up against two mega-stars and possibly a former nominee and a former vice presidential nominee. No way.
Gen. Wesley Clark: His year was 2004, and he didn't capitalize on it. I like the mix of military toughness and centrist politics, but I think a former general is not the guy to knock off the front-runners in this crowded campaign. Get out and save face for a top administration post.
The nice part is there are also some others out there to help, such as Sen. Evan Bayh (Clinton, Edwards or Obama would be smart to pick him as a running mate). A crowded field should thin by the end of 2007, and I suspect there will be just a handful of legitimate candidates when the actual voting starts in January 2008. The downside is that if the last candidate standing will still have a long time for the media and Republicans to dig up dirt. Other factors such as YouTube and bloggers make this dangerous waters -- just ask George Allen. Could be a nice way for someone to be drafted to save the party. We'll see. There's a long time till the voting begins.
-- Wenatchee, Wash.