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Published: Saturday, 6/16/2007

Campaign 2008 is moving too fast

HANOVER, N.H. - Try a 30-minute workout with the television on in a New Hampshire hotel exercise room and this is what assaults you: An ad for Mitt Romney boasting that the former Massachusetts governor was able, "in the toughest place," to do "the toughest things." An ad for Sen. Christopher J. Dodd touting the Connecticut Democrat's experience and achievements. An ad for Gov. Bill Richardson showing the New Mexico Democrat in a mock job interview talking about what he did for schools in his home state and then being told he was overqualified for the job of being president.

These three ads are especially creative, but that's not why they are important cultural markers. The important thing about these ads is that they are airing in June the year before the election.

There have been accelerated presidential races before - everyone gasped when some of the Democratic candidates held a debate about economic issues in August, 1987, 15 months before the 1988 election - but none has started quite as fast, or as early, as the 2008 campaign. The Iowa caucuses are on Jan. 14, 2008, and the New Hampshire Primary is eight days later. The big contest (as many as 23 states) is on Feb. 5. The big contest in the 2004 race (10 states) was on March 2.

But a campaign that is different for starting early is different for other reasons, too. The pace of the campaign has accelerated not only here in New Hampshire, site of the first presidential primary, but elsewhere as well. Candidates are traveling more, debating earlier, raising money faster. Ordinarily in America, more, earlier, and faster are better. Not this time.

A whole slew of commentators already has weighed in, arguing why this primary and caucus schedule is a bad thing for the country. Almost all of the commentary has focused on the likelihood that a dark horse candidate will not have the chance to emerge from a schedule like this and the possibility that, having decided the contest early, voters in both parties will have buyers' remorse.

Neither of those things troubles me. Dark horse candidates hardly ever win or are nominated; the last one was Jimmy Carter, in 1976, and it is difficult to discern any groundswell for a return to the good old days under Mr. Carter. Buyers' remorse is an American character trait, and I can't remember a campaign where voters in November didn't feel a twinge of regret about the choice they faced, even when, as in the 1984 case, that choice wasn't determined until the first week of June.

Nor am I troubled, as political insiders are, that it is harder to plan campaign events when candidates are flying from place to place, from Iowa and New Hampshire, where they used to plant themselves (Gov. Bruce Babbitt actually took an apartment in Des Moines in 1987), to Michigan, South Carolina, and Nevada and some of the other important early states.

And I cannot say that I am terribly discomfited by the importance that national polls are assuming already, though I do find it interesting that the latest Associated Press-Ipsos poll shows the Republican race being dominated by someone who is not yet running, former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee.

What bothers me instead is that the frenetic pace of Campaign 2008 is depriving the candidates of the time and leisure they need for thought, reflection, and education. Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois, who ran for president in 1952 and 1956, once said that a campaign was above all an opportunity for a candidate to educate himself about the country. Candidates need time to think, to refine their ideas, to meet people and learn from them, to test themselves, their ideas, and their staffs. That's not happening in Campaign 2008.

"You don't have time to think and sort out your positions," says former New Hampshire Attorney General Thomas D. Rath, a veteran of GOP presidential races in the Granite State. "The candidates are living on cell phones and Blackberries. The contemplative part of the campaign is in jeopardy. Deep thought is fit around a half hour in the car. In the early states where people are used to seeing the candidates, they are in and out faster. They are here. But they are not here with the time to stretch out a little bit and get to know people."

An ideal campaign has time for candidates from urban states, who don't know a price support from a pork rind, to meet farmers, hear their views, and come to a rational conclusion about agricultural policy - instead of just going to Iowa and saying that ethanol is a great idea and that the family farm represents essential American values. An ideal campaign has time for candidates to listen at leisure to the views of people who are worried about their schools, or the economy, or pensions, or health care or the earned-income tax credit - instead of depending on someone from the Brookings Institution or the American Enterprise Institute to craft a series of pre-packaged positions.

That's not happening this time. You're the loser. But so are the candidates.

Now, back to those campaign ads airing in New Hampshire. The Richardson advertisement was filmed in the law firm founded by Mr. Rath, who is a senior adviser to Mr. Romney, and the setting was the office suite of Michael A. Pignatelli, who is a committed supporter of Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York. Here in New Hampshire, the politicos believe in their candidates, but most of all they believe in the primacy of the New Hampshire Primary. They're willing to help where they can.



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