FrontRunneritis

Yes, FrontRunneritis is a terrible disease. Lyndon Johnson had it. Ed Muskie had it. Howard Dean had it. Candidates for all levels of office catch it. The question this year is, do Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton have it or are they in danger of catching it with the kinds of campaigns they are running?

George H.W. Bush described his early front-runner status in 1980 as “the Big Mo,” as in momentum. Unfortunately for him, Ronald Reagan upended that march to the Republican presidential nomination.

There are, of course, front-runner expectations that are difficult to meet (The Expectations Game). The artificially high poll numbers, the name-identification advantage, the glowing press coverage, all add up to potential trouble. It is especially true with early primary and caucus states. The mightier they are, the harder they fall.

I have said repeatedly that I believed that with Rudy Giuliani he peaked the day he announced. His numbers were so high not because of what people knew about him but because of what they didn’t know about him. He was the 9/11 candidate, one-dimensional, no depth to the candidacy. Once people got a three-dimensional view, understood who he was and what he believed, he would head down faster than sludge in a clean pipe. Of course, his opponents are not exactly lighting up the sky with their brilliance either. But Giuliani is a classic front-runner candidate and he is acting like it. His three cutesy phone calls from his wife at key speeches — please, how sophomoric.

Hillary Clinton still must guard against the “inevitability” argument. But her situation is different from Rudy — people have more information on her and opinions are already formed for many. She also is well aware, I believe, of the dangers of FrontRunneritis. Her campaign team must prove to voters in those early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada that nothing is being taken for granted, not one town or city, not one precinct, not one vote. And in Iowa, it is one vote at a time, one person at a time. She must prove to people that she can win the “winnability race,” that she can defeat any of the Republicans in November 2008. She must also campaign up close and personal, not with just flashy events or speeches or TV ads.

The old, trite adage that you run like the underdog still works in politics. This baby ain’t over. The candidate that comes down with FrontRunneritis is, I’m afraid, destined to lose.

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