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Predicting the outcome of the presidential sweepstakes at this stage of the game is the statistical equivalent of trying to peg ground zero for the next asteroid to hit Earth. But, despite the volatility of individual candidates’ campaigns, like asteroids, it’s not impossible to make an educated guess as to their speed, trajectory and location, especially in relation to the other celestial bodies hurtling through the cosmos toward 2008. [IMGCAP(1)]

So, what follows isn’t a prediction but an assessment of where the race stands today, understanding that two weeks from now it could be a whole new universe.

I’ll start with the macro picture: The 2008 presidential campaign already has proved itself to be unique in several ways. First, the last time we saw a wide-open contest for the nomination in both parties, with no incumbent president or vice president in the mix, was 1928. Second, this presidential campaign has started far earlier than previous ones and even more unusual, with a group of candidates whose name identification, with a couple of exceptions, already is nearing 100 percent.

Third, media coverage will be even more important this cycle for a couple of reasons. Viable candidates still will have to meet a significant monetary threshold, but with the candidates this well-known, the 2008 race will be much more an “earned media” driven process. Moving up the primary dates in key states such as California makes candidates even more reliant on the media for the coverage that may make the difference.

Finally, this election will see wide use of alternative channels of communication — the Internet, YouTube, bloggers and the like — not as interesting sidebars but as key elements of campaign strategy.

Now for the candidates, starting with the Republicans, in the order of their standing in the polls.

Rudy Giuliani: Giuliani has spent the first month since announcing his candidacy defying conventional wisdom and media predictions that the Republican base will never accept a social moderate. As “America’s mayor” has skyrocketed in the polls far beyond expectations, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and most political pundits have been left to wonder what happened.

What happened is a Republican base that is not nearly as dogmatic as the media always have believed. Competence, leadership and a focus on security may well be the characteristics that trump specific social issues with Republican primary voters this time around.

If so, Giuliani has the résumé for the job description. That doesn’t mean Giuliani is a perfect fit for a conservative party. Whether he can sell himself to the base as the kind of competent leader they want without making compromises that open him to charges of flip-flopping remains an open question. As does his personal life, which also may pose problems ahead.

John McCain: McCain’s pre-announcement announcement on the “Late Show with David Letterman” is a perfect metaphor for a campaign that seems intent on fighting the last presidential contest. While it worked when California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) did it on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” McCain’s Letterman appearance fell flat, looking more like a missed snap than an edgy long ball. With polls showing Giuliani significantly stronger with conservatives than McCain, his decision to skip the Conservative Political Action Conference annual meeting the same week was more than a little baffling.

It left the impression that McCain feared losing either the straw poll or the battle of dueling speeches. Whatever the reason, perhaps he should have thought about his previous decision to forgo a contest — that was Iowa in 2000. The race is far from over, but McCain’s current strategy could leave him safe but sorry.

Newt Gingrich: Yes, the former Speaker hasn’t announced, but despite that fact, he steadily has been gaining ground, now firmly in third place in most polls and closing on McCain. Given his name identification and strong conservative credentials, Gingrich has the ability to make a late entry into the race without huge risk other than in Iowa, where early organizing began months ago. For most of the country, the state deadlines for delegate filings are the only calendar that matters.

Gingrich’s most serious challenge, should he decide to run, is to convince Republican primary voters that he can win the general election. That means engaging the electorate now in a way that will lower his negatives. A “kinder, gentler” Newt coupled with a focus on solutions-based rhetoric may well be key.

Mitt Romney: The Romney campaign got off to a good start thanks to some smart moves, an intelligent and articulate candidate and a friendly media. But the campaign has stalled, in part, because the former Massachusetts governor lacks the one thing the other three leading candidates don’t — national figure status.

Romney has his own story to tell — successful businessman, savior of the Salt Lake City Olympics and Republican governor of a blue state — and his decision to get out front with bio ads in five key states was a good move. On the downside, a series of revelations about his changing views on a number of social issues have called his conservatism into question, and he continues to be dogged by questions about his religion.

It’s early, however, and there’s plenty of time for Romney to move, but he needs to inject some life back into the campaign and establish himself quickly as a national figure.

Now for the Democrats.

Hillary Rodham Clinton: The Democratic frontrunner seems to be suffering from the same problem as McCain — trying to fight an old battle. The New York Senator underestimated Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and then overreacted to David Geffen’s nasty pot shots. Instead of Obama, it was Clinton who found herself on the defensive, and the polls showed a perceptible shift in African-American voters toward Obama.

This past week, she was forced to press former President Bill Clinton into last-minute service appearing with her at the Selma March commemoration, which only added to the perception of a frontrunner under pressure. She still holds a roughly 10-point lead and is far ahead of Obama in terms of money and organization, but she’s got a real race on her hands. Like McCain, she needs to stop the bleeding.

Barack Obama: There is no question that he is a phenomenon. But it’s not surprising. No candidate in history has had a more favorable introduction to the country by the media than Obama. That doesn’t mean his honeymoon with the press will continue indefinitely.

His message is positive and inspiring, but to be elected president requires some policy meat on the bones. So far, there has been virtually no media discussion of his record or his views on key issues. When that happens, the American electorate, which remains center right, will discover a far more liberal candidate than his speeches would suggest.

Much like Giuliani, the question about Obama that remains to be answered is whether the force of his personality and his story can trump ideology? With terrorism and security still top concerns, his lack of experience may hurt him in the long run.

John Edwards: Ann Coulter’s minor boost last week notwithstanding, the former North Carolina Senator has one mission: win Iowa. If he fails, his candidacy is over. While some Iowa polls have had him leading, most national polls show the 2004 vice presidential candidate hovering in the teens with little movement. The Obama candidacy now poses a serious roadblock for Edwards as he tries to position himself as the Clinton alternative.

And then there’s former Vice President Al Gore waiting in the wings with his Oscar, saying that he has no intention of running.

If the first quarter of the presidential campaign is any indication, making assumptions about outcomes at this stage is risky business. What we do know is that the race for the nomination on both sides remains very competitive and is likely to stay that way for some time.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.

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