Presidential politics, during the summer before the summer before the next election, is a lot like spring training baseball. The games are fun to watch, but the scores don't mean much. Back in the summer of 2007, as the races "heated up," Rudy Giuliani was the overwhelming favorite among Republicans, with a polling lead of 20 percentage points over his nearest opponent.
In second place was a man who wound up spending $21 million to become the Jeopardy question: Who is Fred Thompson? That summer John McCain changed places in the polls with Mitt Romney, but not the way you might imagine. McCain actually dropped from third to fourth.
On the Democratic side in July '07, Hillary Clinton's lead over Barack Obama was about 13 percentage points, and the John Edwards campaign had raised $25 million. If only volunteers and contributors had known how much more productive their summers would have been had they just read books and sipped cocktails at the beach.
Now, here we are four years later, doing the same dance, with GOP front-runners Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann. The former Massachusetts governor has raised over $18 million in just the last three months, and probably has a greater chance of being the nominee than Giuliani did at this stage four years ago. Supporters say Romney "looks presidential;" detractors say he's plastic, even phony. More troubling for his candidacy is that Romney's positions on key issues have changed as often as the summer winds.
Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman, has basked in positive press since the New Hampshire debate, and is now in a virtual tie with Romney in Iowa. A native of the state, she'll do well in next month's Iowa Straw Poll, further encouraging the hopes of those who take her candidacy seriously. But Bachmann is merely a pretender. She has no chance whatsoever of winning the nomination. She's playing for position -- as the vice presidential candidate, or for a Palin-sized payoff on the lecture and book-plugging circuits.
Then there's Tim Pawlenty, who has been campaigning in Iowa for nearly two years, yet faces possible elimination from the race if he stumbles badly in the Aug. 13 straw poll. Pawlenty was underwhelming in the New Hampshire debate, and his efforts since have been overshadowed by Bachmann's pizzazz and Romney's polish. As Pawlenty put it on the stump in Ames: "One of the things that voters in Iowa and across the country want to know is 'Do you just flap your jaw, or do you have results that you can back up these statements with?'"
Pawlenty scored just 6 percent in the Des Moines Register poll -- nearly 16 points behind Romney and Bachmann. Pizza exec Herman Cain, who has never held public office, was third with 10 percent. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul had 7 percent each; former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, 4 percent; and former Utah Gov. and ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, 2 percent.
Four summers ago, Romney won the Iowa Straw Poll, but then Mike Huckabee won the Iowa Caucus, and John McCain became the GOP nominee. Summer campaigns, it seems, are more valuable for weeding out the weaker candidates than for confirming the eventual standard-bearer. It's part of the endurance test that has become essential to presidential politics.
As the summer of '07 ended, Rudy Giuliani's numbers began to melt. A Romney aide clucked that Giuliani's huge lead was as real as "Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny."
So, is there an actual nominee in this summer's GOP crop? Or just a list of future Jeopardy questions?
Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker. He is also the long-time host of "Candid Camera." He may be reached at www.CandidCamera.com. This column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate.