Monday Morning Quarterback

There is no midsummer's night dream in presidential politics. That, alas, is reserved for Shakespeare revivals.

None seem to be on the schedule.

What is on the schedule for the week ahead are two major events for the Democrats and one for the Republicans.

The Democratic scandidates will journey first to Chicago to flash their wares at the national AFL-CIO forum. Then they head to Los Angeles for a debate on gay and lesbian issues. Meanwhile the Republicans will hold the quadrennial Iowa straw poll in picturesque Ames.

Labor has yet to make a jump in the Democratic presidential race. They're a bit gun shy, after several major unions picked Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt last time around, only to see both quickly fall by the wayside. So this year, the unions have agreed to hold off until they see if the AFL-CIO, and its smaller, more leftist offshoot, the Change To Win coalition, can settle on a candidate.

That decision is still quite a ways off, but the Chicago labor gathering will be key to the hopes of several candidates. John Edwards, who was a rather centrist candidate in 2004 when he was the runner-up for the presidential nomination to John Kerry -- a showing that helped earn him the vice presidential nod -- has pitched his candidacy decidedly more to the left this time out. (By necessity, at the least, if not as a matter of conviction.)

He's running against two superstars, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who have turned out to be super-fundraisers. Either would have blitzed the 2004 field. So he has really had no choice but to pitch himself both as the candidate of labor, and of the lefty "netroots."

Those things aren't always in harmony. When he moved to block the Nevada debate on Fox News, he wowed the netrootsies, who hate Fox with a passion, but irritated labor, which wanted the debate on Fox for pragmatic reasons. Labor is big in Nevada, the second state in the contest after Iowa, and Edwards has so far failed to catch on there, though he has a lot of strength in Iowa.

The Clintons have worked hard to prevent labor support going to Edwards or Obama, and Hillary's performance in Chicago will be key in their attempt to cement that. Obama, too, needs to make sure that none of the big unions go to Edwards, which would make his increasingly straight shot against Hillary more problematic.

Obama, incidentally, while trailing Hillary in national polls, is running first or close to it in new polls in the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Only in Nevada does he trail by a significant amount, so the Obama campaign will be working Nevada this week.

While the politics of wooing and, in some cases, blocking labor are a time honored tradition among Democrats, the debate on gay and lesbian issues in LA marks a new inning. Gay and lesbian rights issues are increasingly strong on the coasts, but still problematic with many elsewhere. Let's not forget that Bill Clinton himself signed the Defense of Marriage Act.

The Democrats have a great chance to win the White House next year, for obvious reasons. Hillary now joins Obama in leading all the Republicans in the most recent polls. But one wonders if they are not getting a bit too avant garde in their moment of historical opportunity. America has never elected a woman president. The only black president was David Palmer, and he was a fictional character on the hit Fox TV show, 24. The gay and lesbian debate is yet another new frontier for the American voter to accept.

While the Democrats test the limits of the envelope, the Republicans are in more traditional mode. Despite the Bush presidency's historic levels of unpopularity, the Republican debate in Iowa showed the field only gingerly attempting to distance themselves from the current president. While acknowledging that "mistakes were made" in Iraq, all -- save Ron Paul -- are foursquare on toughness there and in the overall war on terror.

Bush still has a less than disastrous level of support among most Republican primary voters, and it's wartime, so the inevitable distancing for a general election is still only in the most nascent of stages.

The Iowa straw poll has been a major event in past campaigns. How major it turns out to be in this race remains an open question. Both Rudy Giuliani, who leads in the national polls, and who is the only candidate whose fundraising picked up in the second quarter, and John McCain pulled out of the straw poll weeks ago.

The poll doesn't actually elect any delegates. They'll be elected as a result of the caucuses on January 14th. It does cost very big money. So Mitt Romney, who leads in the polls in Iowa after months of essentially unanswered TV advertising, should walk away with the straw poll.

Dark house Sam Brownback, the conservative senator from Kansas, has been doing robocalls around the state attacking Romney for his late-blooming stance against abortion. It will be interesting to see what sort of dent that might put into the good ship Mitt.

What's likely is that the Iowa straw poll will hand Romney his first real win in an actual vote, and perhaps winnow what is still a very large field of candidates who mostly have no chance of winning the nomination, much less a general election against a top Democrat.

The debates have begun to pall for the media, and aren't drawing huge viewerships, in large measure because they aren't really debates. They're glorified forums. They were quite interesting earlier this year, but are now very familiar. You can't have a debate with eight to ten candidates on the stage. There simply isn't enough time to engage in any deep or extended sort of way.

If the Iowa straw poll doesn't end up proving much about Romney's candidacy, it may at the least make it more possible for the top contenders to engage with one another down the line. That is, assuming that the folks running the debates know how to conduct an actual debate.

William Bradley blogs at New West Notes