In '08 race, hopefuls bag early support

The first debates of the 2008 presidential campaign are fast approaching, leaving dark horses and favorites to take their marks and improve their odds with familiar handicappers: fellow politicians.

The first debates of the 2008 presidential campaign are fast approaching, leaving dark horses and favorites to take their marks and improve their odds with familiar handicappers: fellow politicians.

A single endorsement can hold a high value for candidates, whether formally declared or not, as they craft a strategy for the media and fundraising derby that is a White House bid. Following a week dominated by bipartisan criticism of President Bush’s planned troop increase in Iraq, which Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has supported, McCain changed the conversation yesterday by naming Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) the national co-chairman of his presidential exploratory committee.

“I think our country needs somebody who can bring this country back together — it’s polarized — and do that without violating core principles or values,” Pawlenty, whose reelection in November was a bright spot for the GOP, told Fox News yesterday.

Republicans will hold their 2008 nominating convention in Pawlenty’s home state, fueling speculation that an alliance with the McCain camp would put the governor on the shortlist for a vice presidential or Cabinet nod. But Pawlenty said yesterday he would remain focused on Minnesota.

Snagging the bona fides of a rising party star such as Pawlenty is one thing, but winning over lawmakers from states with early primaries in 2008 can provide an even bigger boost. Both senators from New Hampshire, where the latest polls show McCain and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani ahead among Republicans, are staying mum on their allegiances.

“My focus in the 2008 election is on my race,” said Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.), a top target for Senate Democrats looking to build their majority. “I’m staying focused on my work here.”

Still, Sununu said he has not stayed out of the early White House jockeying entirely, befitting New Hampshire’s pride in its primary’s longtime first-in-the-nation status. The senator — whose father, a former governor, endorsed President Bush in 2000 — said he has met with most of the possible Republican presidential contenders and given them counsel on how to gain entr