A careful screening

January 03, 2008

Surely no one would set out to create the absurd presidential nomination process that finally gets under way today with the Iowa caucuses. Yet the surrogates standing in there and in New Hampshire next week for the vast majority of American voters who won't have direct contact with candidates have done a good job of separating the corn from the husk while probably not signaling the final choice.

In fact, both Republican and Democratic contests are so close, odds are the competition will continue in earnest for at least a few more weeks - maybe not until Maryland votes on Feb. 12, but longer than usual.

These two rural, nearly all-white states are hardly representative of the national electorate. A fairer system would rotate the chance to vote first among states or regions every four years. Yet Iowa and New Hampshire are small enough to demand that candidates campaign in person for months, and through the magic of the news media, this has made them familiar to voters elsewhere.

What's more, Iowa and New Hampshire voters are a tough audience.

Money makes only a marginal difference, which is why the well-heeled Mitt Romney is now sweating out a shoestring challenge for the GOP nomination by Mike Huckabee. Presumptive favorites regularly get toppled, which is why Hillary Rodham Clinton is locked in a three-way Democratic struggle with Barack Obama and John Edwards. And poseurs are spotted right off, which is why advance expectations couldn't keep Fred Thompson afloat once voters sensed he was just going through the motions.

Debates have been numerous and illuminating, though not all rose to the intellectual plane voters might hope. On immigration, for example, Republicans Romney, Huckabee and Rudolph W. Giuliani accused one another of taking practical positions toward undocumented workers earlier in their careers, which, sadly, is perceived as a failing. The Democratic front-runners often attempted to distinguish themselves by tone of voice: Mr. Edwards: angry; Mrs. Clinton: strong; Mr. Obama: hopeful. Veteran Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Christopher J. Dodd pleaded to be taken seriously.

Neither nomination contest would likely be so wide open if there had been an incumbent running. Voter ambivalence might also be attributed to a Republican field that is unusually weak, and a Democratic field that is particularly strong. Even so, early-staters are due credit for sorting through two very large rosters and cueing the parties as to which candidates are best able to go the distance - while sparing the rest of the country the worst of the lot.

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