Obama Shakes Up the Race

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Stefan Zaklin / EPA

Senator Barack Obama, January 17, 2007

For all the hype and drama that attended the speculation about Barack Obama's 2008 presidential bid, his actual announcement was rather tepid. There was no Oprah performance filled with wordplay on "audacity" and "hope," no tension-filled live broadcast, no Monday Night Football gag, just the oddly flat, open-collared video announcement; perhaps he's already trying to tamp expectations downward, after so many weeks in the hype machine. The substance of his announcement leaves little doubt that he's sincerely interested in running, and the polls suggest that even if the YouTube clip was a little disappointing, he benefits from people not really knowing what a "bad day" means for him.

The strength of Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is that her days vary little. Her remarkable discipline will be tested this week as the media gins up the excitement that Obama's actual announcement lacked. Her handlers rescheduled a press conference covering her recent visit to Iraq in the wake of the Obama news — though they insisted that the timing was coincidental. The event is to go on Thursday, though whatever it is she has to announce is unlikely to make news in this environment.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the maneuvering is less high-profile. Two long-shot Republican candidates have made announcements of a sort: Former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson has formed an exploratory Committee, while Rep. Tom Tancredo, of Colorado, visited Iowa and told reporters that he would be making a decision about running soon. Despite his low Q-rating, Tancredo presents the bigger of the two dark-horse threats. His signature issue — immigration reform — makes for the kind of sound-bite-friendly courting of the primary base and handsome visuals (miniature fence, anyone?) that can alter the terms of debate. And that's all Tancredo's really trying to do. If nothing else, he'll make life a little harder for John ("I'll build the goddamned fence if they want it") McCain.

The Racing Form shows both primary races tightening up in terms of odds. Clinton and McCain are still the betters' favorites, but as voters begin paying more attention and the Iraq war grows even more unpopular, the back of the pack is getting more competitive. In the Republican competition, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee leapt forward with the release of a new book and a suitably self-deprecating turn on The Daily Show. Oh, and Democratic Senator Chris Dodd announced, totally shaking up the delicate balance in Connecticut's Democrat/Connecticut-for-Lieberman coalition.

The more exploratory committees get launched, the tougher the competition will be for exploratory cash — though we won't find out how that contest is going until January 31, the next Federal Election Commission filing deadline for presidential candidates. Early word has Obama looking surprisingly good on that front (he recently attracted the help of ex-Kerry '04 national finance director Lou Susman, known as "the Hoover"), whereas those lesser candidates will be looking to make the most of what's called "free media" — that is, publicity stunts. I understand there's a slot on Oprah's schedule that's free.