Pure Horserace: Resetting The Table

generic presidentiual election 08 Barack Obama Hillary Clinton Rudy Giuliani John McCain campaign white house (Mitt Romney)
Labor Day weekend traditionally has marked the "official" kickoff of presidential campaigns; it's just that it has never happened in the year before the election year. Make no mistake, this campaign has been in high gear for months and is only going to get more intense starting next week. We still don't know when the first primaries will be, but the betting is that Iowans will be caucusing before we have a chance to break our New Year's resolutions, making the next four months all the more crucial.

Here are a few keys to watch this fall:

The Fred Factor: In late May, Fred Thompson decided to begin dipping his toes in the water and generated a lot of enthusiasm among Republicans not enthralled with their other choices. But that excitement has yet to translate into the kind of war chest once expected, according to figures released by Thompson's "testing the waters" organization, and an announcement once pegged to early July has slipped into September.

Along the way have come questions about Thompson's willingness to put in the kind of 24/7 work a presidential campaign demands, reports of internal wrangling and some rather lackluster public appearances. The GOP race remains fairly wide open, but Thompson's delay has allowed other candidates to solidify, if not broaden, their reach. Did he wait too long - or is the time just right for a new face in the field? We'll know by the time winter arrives.

The Juggernaut: By just about every measure, Hillary Clinton's campaign appears nearly unstoppable. If ever there were a model for an establishment candidacy, this is it. Instant recognition, tons of money, institutional support and the party's most recent former president campaigning on her behalf has put the New York senator in the driver's seat for the Democratic nomination.

Clinton has made few mistakes thus far, but even a perfect candidate cannot overcome factors outside of their control. Her exchange of words with outgoing Bush adviser Karl Rove put a spotlight on Clinton as a polarizing figure in American politics. Democratic primary voters, with plenty of help from her opponents, will be forced to think about her ability to win the general election and whether they're ready to revisit the politics of the 1990s.

Romney's Rise Mitt Romney's victory at the Iowa straw poll isn't the most noteworthy part of his campaign thus far. No Republican candidate has come further, or run a more energetic, aggressive campaign than the former Massachusetts governor. He's risen from also-ran to top tier in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire and has the money to keep it going.

Romney seems to have answered early concerns about his shifts in position on issues like abortion, but don't think he won't have to keep hearing those questions. Likewise, questions about his Mormon faith aren't likely to disappear anytime soon, either in the media or on the campaign trail. Key for Romney is making the race into a choice between himself and one other candidate, but it's monumentally important who that opponent would be. A matchup between Romney and Giuliani would be ideal for his conservative-themed campaign, but can he take out a candidate like Thompson?

Obama's Challenge: Sure, this presidential field features a former first lady, a mayor heralded for his heroism, a dashing CEO and a American war hero but Barack Obama has arguably generated more interest and enthusiasm than all of them combined. As the first African American who appears to have a real shot at the White House, Obama has combined that with a message of transcending the nature of American politics. In a change election, nobody represents more dramatic change. He's also gone toe-to-toe with Clinton on the money front.

But like any kind of movement candidacy, the question is whether he turn the newfound energy into primary votes. Obama should find fertile ground among New Hampshire independents and African-American voters in South Carolina, but will he find enough to upset the front-running Clinton machine? And how will the candidate who disowns "politics as usual" deal with just that kind of politics? For all the advantages, there are as many questions about his campaign. We should begin to get some answers this fall.

Rudy's Fall? The knock on Giuliani all along has been that he is a square peg in a round-hole party. Sure, he's tough on terrorism, a strong leader and has performed in a crisis. But he's also far from the kind of social conservatism that has traditionally dominated the GOP primaries. His fall has been anticipated - yet it hasn't happened. Giuliani remains the front-runner, nationally at least.

Will a more traditional conservative emerge to challenge Giuliani across the country? If so, that candidate will almost certainly emerge by winning Iowa, where Giuliani promises to play but has yet to put in the real work required. Instead, Giuliani appears to be pursuing a late-calendar strategy, putting time and resources into states like Florida in hopes of mining the deep numbers of delegates in larger states. Can Giuliani hold his own in the early states? If not, will his later-state investment pay off - or will he be washed away by the momentum of someone else? Keep your eyes on those early state polls for some hints.

Edwards' Gamble: John Edwards has been cultivating the soil in Iowa for four years and came into the year as the favorite in the caucus state. Almost everything is riding on a victory, or at least a close second-place finish, to make the Democratic contest a two-person race. Should he manage that, Edwards populist/base message could gain real traction as he moves forward. His has already proven the most aggressive in terms of engaging his primary opponents.

On the plus side for him, both Clinton and Obama are competing all-out in Iowa, making a potential victory even more impressive. But where he once had a clear lead, there is now a virtual three-way tie in most recent polling (he managed to grab a slight lead in the most recent survey). The stakes just about couldn't be higher for Edwards in Iowa. If you want to catch Edwards on the trail this fall, your best bet might be to camp out in Des Moines.

The Rest Of The Field: John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd and Joe Biden all have something that could allow them to break out of the lower tier. McCain is a household name and one-time presumptive nominee whose campaign was so badly managed in the first six months of the year that it nearly knocked him out of the race. His position on immigration reform inspired near-hatred of him among some Republicans. Yet his life story, experience and tenaciousness are enough than nobody is writing him off just yet.

Huckabee's surprising showing at the straw poll is a testament to his ability to impress Republicans through his speeches and debate performances. If he can somehow figure out how to turn that into financial resources and find another victory before winter, he could become a factor. Richardson has slowly been creeping up on the front-runners in the early states. His personality may not come through so well in televised debates, but something is working for him on the trail. Dodd and Biden have earned the respect of Democratic voters and interest groups through years of toil in the Senate. They are serious men with serious credentials, and one of them may cash in on that.

In any other year, one or more of this group would have an excellent chance at breaking out in time for the caucuses and primaries. But the road this time is cluttered with more traffic and bigger, better-financed opponents. If it's going to happen, it will probably have to be before the snow flies in Manchester. - Vaughn Ververs

Clinton's Dodgy Donor: In yesterday's Horserace, we discussed the potential pitfalls of rounding up early, high-profile endorsements, which increases the odds that a candidate's backers could wind up being embroiled in scandal. That way of thinking can also apply to candidates who are fond of big-money donors - something Hillary Clinton may be more aware of than ever today.

On Wednesday, the Clinton campaign announced it was divesting itself of $23,000 in donations from Norman Hsu, a Democratic fundraiser whose methods were brought into question earlier this week in a Wall Street Journal article, The Associated Press reports. But that article isn't the reason Clinton is turning Hsu's donations over to charity - it turns out that Hsu is a fugitive from justice after failing to show up at a California sentencing hearing related to his no contest plea in a grand theft case. Other Democratic candidates nationwide have also distanced themselves from Hsu and his money.

More than any other Democrat, Clinton is prone to a problem like this, which not only casts doubts on her fundraising, but also highlights what her opponents portray as a liability: her key role in the Democratic establishment and its network of big-money donors. Both Obama and Edwards have highlighted the large amounts they receive from small donors while casting Clinton as the favorite of rich, corporate interests.

But the story illustrates a peril that all top-tier candidates face in this campaign: The pressure to raise so much money so fast might get in the way of seriously investigating where those checks are coming from. - David Miller

Giuliani's Moment? After basing so much of his campaign on his performance as New York City's mayor during and after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Giuliani might be expected to benefit from the sixth anniversary of that day's events. But it turns out that is exactly the problem for some survivors and families of those who died in the attacks, and they have a message for Giuliani: Stay away.

Though Giuliani has been invited to this year's ceremonies by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, there are many who do not want him there, The New York Times reports. For some, their objection is based on a desire to keep presidential politics out of a solemn service. For others, particularly some firefighters and other first responders, they feel that Giuliani failed them in several ways - from not ensuring adequate communications to not being upfront about airborne pollutants around the ruins of the World Trade Center.

The controversy threatens to overwhelm the positive memories of Giuliani that many have from that time. It could also provide a megaphone to those who claim Giuliani is exploiting one of the country's darkest days for political gain. - David Miller

One Union, Two Unlikely Endorsements: The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers' officially announced two presidential endorsements today, The Associated Press reports. Perhaps most surprisingly, one of them wasn't John Edwards, who has worked hard to secure the support of organized labor and has been discussing issues such as trade and health care that are important to union members. Instead, the group went with Hillary Clinton

While the official reasoning from the union relates to Clinton's manufacturing policy, a source quoted on Marc Ambinder's blog has a more practical rationale: The union wanted to go with a winner. If other unions subscribe to the same way of thinking, securing their endorsements could prove difficult for Edwards.

As for the union's second endorsement, it went to Republican Mike Huckabee. How he got it is a testament to the importance of just showing up: As the only GOP candidate to attend the union's annual conference, he won their backing by default. - David Miller

A Note To Our Readers: Pure Horserace will be taking an extra-long holiday weekend and will not publish on Friday, Aug. 31. We hope all our readers have a safe and enjoyable Labor Day.

Editor's note: Pure Horserace is a daily update of political news as interpreted by the political observers at CBSNews.com. Click here to sign up for the e-mail version.

By Vaughn Ververs and David Miller