Then again, they can often be rough-and-tumble affairs, exposing weaknesses that later are used against their own in a general election. After all, it was a fellow Democrat — Al Gore — who first brought up the issue of the Massachusetts furloughs in the 1988 Democratic primary before Republicans latched onto the name of Willie Horton.
It can be argued that the in-depth opposition research conducted during the presidential primaries is an important part of the vetting process that can help avoid nominating fatally-flawed candidates. Most high-level political operations even run oppo-research on themselves to identify weaknesses. Still, one candidate in the race eventually has to come out of the process with the nomination — and none is without flaws. The emphasis given to those flaws now will go a long way toward shaping public opinion of the candidates.
Thus far in the 2008 race, most of this activity has been aimed at undercutting support for one candidate or another among the party faithful themselves. One campaign provided reporters information about Rudy Giuliani's past contributions to Planned Parenthood, for example — something that could be far more damaging for his campaign in the primaries than the general election.
However, stories about dealings by Giuliani's consulting firm (or Barack Obama's ties to an indicted real estate developer) could reach far beyond this first round. You don't think all those stories are purely the result of intrepid investigative reporting, do you? As the race continues to heat up, we're almost certain to see all the top candidates scrutinized in this way, both through questions raised by the press and issues raised by rival campaigns.
Another source of potential political damage, of course, is from already-aired issues that have either been forgotten or not yet known to most voters. The two new books on Hillary Clinton appear unlikely to provide any real bombshells according to the early reports on them — but they will once again bring certain issues to the fore that the campaign would rather avoid.
And, as Tom Edsall's report on the Huffington Post reminds us, some of those past campaign issues could easily resurface. Edsall revisits Mitt Romney's unsuccessful 1994 Senate bid, in which Ted Kennedy beat back the challenge partly with a series of ads questioning Romney's record as a venture capitalist.
The ads honed in on a company that was purchased by Bain Capital, Romney's firm, which then bought a separate company that laid off those workers and offered to hire them back at reduced salaries. Those workers appeared in Kennedy's ads and didn't exactly help bolster Romney's image as a proclaimed job creator.
Even though we sometimes like to romanticize, America has never elected a perfect person to the nation's highest office. But politics, particularly in today's world, isn't tiddlywinks. The trick is to recognize vulnerabilities when they arise, effectively respond and hope you do more good than harm. Add that to the list of worries for campaign strategists. — Vaughn Ververs
Thompson Speaks Out: Confirming statements made by unidentified staff members, former Sen. Fred Thompson said today in an interview with USA Today that he is leaving his role on TV's "Law & Order" to run for president. The Tennessee Republican also offered some insight on the strategy he'll use in getting his late-starting campaign off the ground.
Thompson said his presence on the Internet "has allowed me to be in the hunt, so to speak, without raising a dime" — though all that free media attention from traditional outlets like, well, USA Today, has helped him a lot, too. But he's been a regular contributor to the Web site for the conservative magazine National Review, and his online video response to liberal activist and filmmaker Michael Moore earned him praise in Republican circles.
Even as the Internet's role in presidential politics has increased, it's remained mostly a complement to traditional campaigning. Plus, Democrats are often seen as having the upper hand in the online arena, much as the GOP dominates the talk radio circuit. By running a Net-centric campaign, Thompson would challenge both ideas.
Can blogs, YouTube videos and e-mails allow Thompson to catch up, especially in states like Iowa and New Hampshire that value face-to-face contact? Democrats John Edwards and Barack Obama already have used the Internet in unique ways in this race; will Thompson have any fresh ideas of his own? Those are but two of the many questions surrounding his candidacy. Thankfully, after months of speculation, we should begin getting answers soon. — David Miller
Brownback's Evolving Stance: You might remember when, during the first Republican presidential debate on May 3, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback was one of a few who raised his hand when asked if he did not believe in evolution. Today, in The New York Times, Brownback sought to give a more in-depth response.
In the op-ed piece, Brownback explains that he doesn't necessarily believe in the idea that the world and man were created by God over six days, or creationism. However, he also refutes the idea that man's evolution is "merely the chance product of random mutations."
"Yet I believe, as do many biologists and people of faith, that the process of creation — and indeed life today — is sustained by the hand of God in a manner known fully only to him," Brownback writes. "It does not strike me as anti-science or anti-reason to question the philosophical presuppositions behind theories offered by scientists who, in excluding the possibility of design or purpose, venture far beyond their realm of empirical science."
The piece leaves us wondering why Brownback felt the need to address his debate response, especially so long after it happened. He's languished in the low single-digits in polls, and his campaign so far has been based on winning over the party's large evangelical contingent — feeling the need to clarify his view on evolution may not hurt him with that crowd, but it's doubtful it will help him, either. — David Miller
Favorite Son? Not Exactly: In, we mentioned Rudy Giuliani's belief that his appeal beyond the traditional "red states" would allow him to beat back Democratic attempts to win the White House in 2008. "My view of this race for president is that the Republican Party should not go into this election, as we have in the past, having to write off New York, Connecticut, New Jersey," he said in an Associated Press reports.
But according to a new poll, his blue state appeal might be pretty limited, if numbers out of his home state of New York are any indication. A Siena College poll shows Hillary Clinton leading Giuliani in a head-to-head match-up, 52 percent to 39 percent. Clinton's got momentum, too: In April, her lead over the former New York City mayor was only 4 percentage points. — David Miller
Simple Economics? If Democrats want to enlarge the political playing field in 2008, they need to pay attention to poor and middle-class rural voters who see the American dream slipping away from them. That's what Democratic rural strategist Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, an adviser to John Edwards, argues in anpenned for CBSNews.com today. "Mudcat" says rural voters in red states are ripe for the picking on the issue — if Democrats (other than his candidate, of course) would pay attention. — Vaughn Ververs
By Vaughn Ververs and David Miller