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Monday Morning Quarterback: A Long Hot Summer

Heading into the middle of summer, some of the dangers of an ultra-long campaign are coming more clearly into focus.

This coming week, the Democrats hold another debate on Monday night, on CNN, this time with the seemingly techno-savvy gimmick of sifting through citizen-generated video questions via YouTube.

On the Republican side, John McCain seeks to show proof of life after virtually everyone I know — or anyone else knows — has left his campaign. Rudy Giuliani seeks to remind that he leads in most polls, albeit by smaller margins. Mitt Romney counters by pointing out that he leads in Iowa and New Hampshire (after months of unanswered TV advertising, which kind of lessens the significance of those leads) as he tries to engage Hillary Clinton by labeling her Democratic Leadership Council program as “Marxist.”

And Fred Thompson, who burst onto the scene a few months ago as the great populist conservative hope, struggles with getting an actual campaign up and running.

First the Democrats. The good news for them is that Barack Obama is not the only Democrat doing very well against all Republican prospects. Hillary Clinton now tops them too, in some very recent polls, the most recent of which is a Fox News poll.

Since Hillary has the unique problem of being disliked by a majority of voters, something is counteracting her inherent lack of mass popularity. That seems, according to the Fox News poll, as well as others, to be the increasingly weighty albatross of Iraq around all major Republican necks. (Not you, Ron Paul.)

Meanwhile, the Democrats gather for another debate Monday night in South Carolina. Hillary has, by most assessments, prevailed in most of the forums and debates held thus far.

And there have been a lot, so many that boredom may set in. Especially since all the candidates — first through fourth tiers — are still on the stage. My assessment of the tiers? First tier: Clinton and Obama. Second tier: John Edwards and Bill Richardson. (Richardson has moved into third place in New Hampshire, and raised nearly as much money as Edwards in the second quarter.) Third tier: Joe Biden and Chris Dodd. Fourth tier: Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel.

There is, frankly, no chance that Kucinich or Gravel can be nominated. As passionate and entertaining as they no doubt are, they take up as much as a quarter of debate time. But that is a problem for the Democratic Party to deal with.

Although a certain amount of boredom is setting in with these large joint appearances in lieu of combat-ready debates between the real contenders, tomorrow night will be interesting.

This will be, in some measure, because of the YouTube factor, despite the fact that it is frankly a gimmick, an attempt to look hip. If we’re being frank, it will essentially be the video equivalent of a Commonwealth Club event, since the moderators at CNN will select the questions just as they would amongst a bunch of handwritten cards collected from a luncheon audience.

Obama, who is trouncing Hillary in fundraising and generally draws much larger and more engaged crowds, is finally getting better at the soundbite politics of these large joint appearance forums and debates. That will be the key question for the spinmeisters following the debate. Will he best her? (One might ask whether he wants to start winning debates against her yet. After all, she makes a wonderful protective target for all the attacks from the right.)

The Republican race, which is far less defined, has no such potentially, if momentarily, defining event this week.

In many ways, the spotlight is on Fred Thompson. After an excellent start as a shadow candidate a few months ago, Fred Thompson is becoming something of a question mark. He is not, as was widely assumed, announcing his candidacy this month. Next month may slide as well. Which would bring us into September.

The explanation? Perhaps he is aware, as others who have run for president and won many primaries have pointed out to me, such as Jerry Brown and Gary Hart, that in such a long campaign, it is quite possible to end up boring the voters before they ever vote. Or perhaps Thompson simply is not prepared.

Thompson has a few fundraisers to watch between now and the end of the month in Houston and Washington. Will he picking up McCain backers? That will be one clear measure of his potential.

For his part, McCain is trying to reboot once again, having melted down twice already this year – first amongst moderates and independents over the Iraq War and then amongst conservatives and independents over his comprehensive immigration bill.

Is the third time the charm? Given that his campaign spent well over 90% of what it raised in the first half of the year, McCain will probably have to take federal matching funds to be competitive in the primaries. Which would force him to accept federal spending limits. A very dicey proposition should he win the nomination and face off against an uber-fundraiser like Obama or Hillary.

Obama, incidentally, has more contributors than all the Republican presidential candidates combined.

Erstwhile frontrunner Giuliani is hanging on against attacks on his 9/11 bona fides by the firefighters union, who charge he didn’t bother as mayor to synchronize first responder radio frequencies before the second attack on the World Trade Center.

Although he’s contesting all of the four earliest states, he clearly looks to California, among other early states, as key to his success. In fact, he campaigns in San Francisco on Monday.

That’s a city that George W. Bush has never even visited as president.