Campaign '07: The Year That Was And Wasn't

This analysis was written by Vaughn Ververs, senior political editor for CBSNews.com.



Year one of the longest presidential campaign in history comes to a close with far less clarity that it had when candidates began announcing their intentions and raising money last January. After thousands of speeches, dozens of televised debates, hundreds of millions of dollars raised and spent, 2008 dawns with the nominations of both major political parties completely up for grabs.

But it hasn't been an uneventful year by any measure and the events of 2007 are almost certain to have as much to do with the outcome of the nomination battles, and the general election itself, as what happens between now and November. We may yet be surprised at which arguments, flubs or utterances made in the past year come back to play a starring role in the general election, but here is a look back at the developments and dynamics that shaped the first half of campaign 2008.

A New Force Emerges: While it can be said that every formal announcement is an important event in a campaign, the entry of Illinois Senator Barack Obama was a unique event, one which changed the very nature of the race.

Standing on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois on a frigid February day, his formal announcement instantly transformed the Democratic nominating contest. Four years earlier, Obama was a little-known state senator. His electrifying speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and subsequent elevation to the U.S. Senate made Obama an instant superstar -- not just a fresh face but a generational leader.

His ability to match, and early on to surpass, the fundraising machine of Senator Hillary Clinton demonstrated that Obama was no flash-in-the-pan phenom but a real contender. A different kind of black leader, one not defined by the civil rights movement of the past, Obama has amassed a coalition of highly educated progressives, African Americans and independents and enters the first primary contests locked in a dead-heat with Clinton. Obama's decision to run now, rather than wait four or even eight years, turned the Democratic race from a likely coronation into a real dogfight.

A Front-Runner Stumbles: Despite Obama's entry and fund-raising ability, Clinton remained the prohibitive front-runner for most of 2007. As a candidate, Clinton remained nearly flawless in the early going. During the numerous candidate debates, the New York Senator was unflappable, quick-witted and above the fray. For someone selling experience and steadiness, it couldn't have been going much better.

But when the candidates met in Philadelphia for a debate in late October, the aura of invincibility began coming apart. Answering questions about a proposal by the governor of New York to allow illegal immigrants to obtain drivers' licenses, Clinton appeared to support the idea before opposing it. A minor flub immediately pierced the aura of invincibility and opened the gates for the concerns which have surrounded the former First Lady since the end of her husband's administration.

Being a Clinton means plenty of baggage on the political trail. Democratic activists already angry with her previous support of the Iraq war were given voice to wonder whether political expediency or principles guided her positions. Arguments about the polarizing nature of her candidacy began gaining more resonance. And when former President Bill Clinton emerged as a vocal supporter of her effort - and a critic of her opponents - the specter of 1990s politics resurfaced as a potent force in the campaign.

Clinton ends the year as a near-underdog in Iowa but with a level of institutional support that most candidates can only dream of. Still, the door is open for Obama or even John Edwards, the party's former vice presidential nominee, to burst through.

A Candidate-In-Theory-Only: For the first nine months of 2007, uncertainty and dissatisfaction hung over the Republican party. The GOP entered the year having lost its majority control in Congress and saddled with an unpopular war and president. Perhaps more unnerving for party stalwarts early on was the lack of a single presidential contender who satisfied the party's different wings.

In John McCain, many rank-and-file party members saw a respected war hero who had been a steadfast defender of the war in Iraq, if not the strategy used to fight it. They also saw a "maverick" with a habit of sticking his finger in the eyes of activists on issues ranging from immigration to campaign finance reform and evangelical activism. Mitt Romney brought a golden reputation as a businessman and organizer but his new devotion to key orthodoxies like abortion made many wary of him. Rudy Giuliani brought a no-nonsense approach to national security and terrorism but flat-out disagreed with the base on social issues.

Polls throughout the year indicated that wide swaths of the party were unsatisfied with the choices being presented them, and in that void former Senator Fred Thompson stepped in - or, rather, tip-toed in. As early as last June, the buzz surrounding his possible entry threatened to overshadow the rest of the field. Thompson regularly topped polls and dominated the discussion.

But June quickly turned into July, then August and finally September. And while Thompson continued to work and plot his campaign behind the scenes, candidates like Romney, Giuliani, McCain and Mike Huckabee continued to run and build toward the early contests. When Thompson did enter the race, he waded in rather than leapt. A lackluster campaign schedule and less-than-electrifying performance on the trail led to the perception that Thompson was at best an unenthusiastic warrior or at worst, lazy.

The failure of Thompson to ignite dissatisfied Republicans opened the door for Huckabee's meteoric rise in November and December. Had social conservatives flocked to Thompson, as many expected, he and not Huckabee might well be competing hard for first place in Iowa. And unlike Huckabee, Thompson had the support of many establishment figures who could put together an organization. Should he fail to win the nomination, Thompson's odd approach to presidential politics will become a case study for how not to run.

An Insurgent Rises: Given the failure of Thompson to rally the forces of social conservatives, it was perhaps inevitable that another candidate would fill that void in the Republican Party. But the dramatic rise of Mike Huckabee surprised even longtime political observers.

In August, Huckabee first demonstrated the potential to turn his under-funded effort into a real grassroots movement. With little money, organization or expectations, Huckabee managed to place a strong second in the Republican straw poll. While candidates like Romney and Sam Brownback poured hundreds of thousands, or millions, into the GOP fund-raising event, Huckabee spent almost nothing, relying on his strong debate performances and conservative message to woo activists.

While gaining a foothold, Huckabee appeared ill-prepared to capitalize on his straw poll showing, particularly considering that candidates like Giuliani and McCain skipped the event altogether. But in October, the former Arkansas Governor used a gathering of mostly evangelical social conservatives to catapult himself into the top tier of the presidential campaign.

Conservatives still uneasy about their candidate choices gathered at an influential Values Voters conference in Washington, DC, where Huckabee wowed the crowd and began cementing himself as the social conservative choice in the race. With Thompson failing to fill the void among social conservatives in the party, the conference enabled Huckabee to begin turning his impressive rhetorical abilities into on-the-ground support in Iowa among the groups which have fueled his rise there.
  • Vaughn Ververs

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