The Note: Too Visible to Be Invisible

WASHINGTON, Feb. 12

The Gang of 500 and its 22,000 closest friends believe Ring 1 is moving inexorably along, Ring 2 has as much bounce as a dropped dead cat, and Ring 3 is where all the action is.

That is to say:

Ring 1 -- the Iraq war: This week's House Iraq non-binding resolution debate will have interesting twists and turns (with the press simultaneously overestimating and underestimating the significance of the number of House Republicans who vote for the measure), but it is just a step along the way to the reality catching up with the political end of the war that occurred in November.

Ring 2 -- other legislative business: Ring 1, lingering bitterness over the Pelosi plane flap, taxes, Vice President Cheney, and Ring 3 make this ring as dead politically as the war.

That leaves us Ring 3 (2008), which is hoppin'.

As Yoda (a/k/a "the Washington Post's Dan Balz") and others have pointed out, these are NOT the earliest starting presidential nominating fights ever -- far from it. But the level of February intensity is patently unprecedented.

Now, the sheer volume of cable, e-mail, and the Internet focus on 2008 gives the impression to the Gang of 500 that more than 22,500 people are actually paying attention to all this now. That impression is wrong.

Go to any medium-sized Midwestern town and ask everyone you see what they think of John Edwards' decision to keep those two bloggers on his staff, and if they think the 28 hours it took to resolve the matter represented an unconscionable delay that reveals more about Edwards' capacity to be president than anything else he ever has done in his life. Chances are, unless the town is Madison, Wisconsin, you will get a lot of blank looks.

But those 22,500 people are extraordinarily influential in creating and influencing media, both Old and New. And the media, as always, is having an extraordinary influence over the campaigns.

Even the Internet is not vast enough to list all of the manifestations of the unparalleled early intensity of this race, but here's a start:

-- Reporters are already locking in campaign-defining double standards (imagine if Hillary Clinton had said that the lives of the military personnel killed in Iraq were "wasted").

-- The Howard Kurtzes of the world are already writing stories about the double standards, and the press is already failing to internalize those stories.

-- Candidates are already losing control of their public image and anxiously strategizing to win them back. (When was the last time you saw John McCain on television NOT being defined by his support for the Iraq war?)

-- Reporters and editors already have fully rationalized their capacity to simultaneously complain that the candidates aren't talking enough about issues while framing all of their coverage around process, polls, personality, drama, strategy, tactics, and gaffes.

-- White House reporters are already drifting off of their beat to cover the campaign. (Put another way, they would rather have their calls returned by Brian Jones and Phil Singer than by Dan Bartlett.)

-- The campaign staffs pretty much HATE the other candidates -- and each other. (And there are already factions within every campaign, with frustrations, competition for candidate favor, fatigue, and Fear of the Spouse running at fall levels.)

-- Intense investigative work already has begun on the major candidates -- with the fruits of some of those efforts coming soon.

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