- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2007

One of the most difficult conclusions to draw before votes are cast in a presidential election is the true mood of the electorate. Opinion polls do not do the job because they are so inexactly constructed by poll takers, and because they are done before election day.

Every election, needless to say, is peculiar to its own particular moment. Pundits and historians like to draw parallels and see similarities between one election and another, usually after the fact.

Before the fact, it’s just speculation. But there are general themes that go from one presidential and national election to another, and one of those is whether the electorate is in the mood for the tried and familiar or for something fresh and new.

In the timeless contest between the old and the new, the age of the candidate is far less significant than the amount of time and exposure the public has to the person who is running for office.

A long-term mood seeking fresh faces and new ideas in politics has thus produced Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Fred Gandy, Jim Bunning, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Ross Perot, Howard Dean and others from professional sports, Hollywood, business careers or very small states where they were previously obscure.

In 2008, both major parties have large fields of candidates divided along the lines of the old and the new, and once again we have the potential for a serious independent presidential run by one or more new figures.

In the Democratic Party, the old is represented by Sen. Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner who is almost universally known, and former Sen. John Edwards, who was new in 2004 when he ran and lost a presidential run, and then was selected by Sen. Kerry to be his vice presidential nominee. Sen. Joe Biden, who ran for president in 1988, and is one of the most senior U.S. senators (he was first elected when he was 29; he’s 65 now), might also be considered one of the “old” figures. Sen. Barack Obama, only two years into his first term, is one of the “new” figures, but several of the second- and third-tier Democrats, including Gov. Bill Richardson and Sen. Chris Dodd, both political veterans, are also new to the national political consciousness.

On the Republican side, the frontrunner is an “old” and “new” figure, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He is followed by an even greater embodiment of the “old,” Sen. John McCain who ran for president in the 2000 cycle. Also declared in the race are several new figures, including former Gov. Mitt Romney, former Gov. Mike Huckabee and Rep. Duncan Hunter. Like Mr. Richardson on the Democratic side, former Gov. Tommy Thompson has been a state governor and held a national cabinet office, but must be considered a “new” face in a presidential nominating contest.

The Republicans also have two major undeclared candidates for president, former Sen. Fred Thompson, who is definitely a new figure, albeit incredibly well-known through his career in TV and film, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, probably the best-known figure in the race after Mrs. Clinton.

As we have frequently had since 1968 (George Wallace, John Anderson, Ross Perot twice and Ralph Nader) there is a potentially significant third-party candidate who represents the new, Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

As I said previously, it’s just speculation to predict anything this early in the 2008 cycle, but it is my intuition that, despite the early polls, both major party electorates are looking for a new figure at the top of their respective tickets. In spite of his obvious lack of political experience, Mr. Obama is showing considerable resilience so far. If he does falter, I suspect that the desire for the “new” will switch in great part to Mr. Richardson (who does not lack experience and gravitas).

The recent rise of Mr. Romney in the early primary/caucus states of New Hampshire and Iowa should be no surprise in this light, because like Mr. Obama, he represents not only the new, but also a charismatic figure. Unlike Mr. Obama, however, Mr. Romney has a story of accomplishments to tell.

There is enormous interest in Mr. Thompson, but he has yet to enter the race. Even if he does, he will have to persuade Republicans that he really wants to be president. Mr. Gingrich does not have this problem. Everyone knows he wants to be president. His challenge is to transform his image of being the “old” to being the “new.” He is perhaps the only presidential candidate this year who might accomplish the transformation, but he has many hurdles to overcome to do this.

There are other prisms through which to evaluate the 2008 field. There is geography and demography, and there is race and religion. And of course, there are the so-called “hot button” issues.

With the administration of President Bush seemingly ending in weariness and frustration, voters seem especially looking for something new. Who is to say, at this point, what will strike their mood most as they choose the next occupant of that white-painted bungalow on Pennsylvania Avenue?

Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.

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