Grading the Campaigns

Easiest Campaign to Follow: Dennis Kucinich
He had no campaign anywhere that I could discern, other than an endless stream of e-mails from his supporters, so what could be easier? He made a lot of noise about being excluded from the final televised Iowa debate, but he did not meet the minimum criterion of having one paid staff person working out of one official campaign office anywhere in the state. This is an infrastructural bar that even tiny peace groups and other nonprofits can reach. Kucinich supporters ought to ask themselves what sort of responsibility a candidate owes his supporters if even he doesn't take his campaign seriously enough to provide the minimum machinery. Kucinich had to drop out last week because he suddenly found himself seriously challenged by a contender for his House seat in the March 4 primary.

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Hardest Campaign to Follow: Hillary Clinton
Sorry to reveal state secrets, but journalists on closed e-mail lists are given advance schedules for each candidate. Among the majors, Clinton tends to give the shortest notice, publishing Hillary's sked only two or three days in advance instead of four or five as others do. Her staff is also the most brittle to work with. While the Obama and Edwards campaigns have a "movement" feel to them, Clinton's is run with all the stand-offish hubris of incumbency; it's strictly dark suits and way too many ear pieces. At her fizzled "victory party" event in Iowa, the campaign required media to RSVP a day in advance. I saw two reporters, one who knew Bill Clinton on a personal-friendship basis for the last 18 years, get turned away from the event because they weren't among the 700 — I kid you not — who had preregistered.

Most Fun Campaign to Follow: A Tie — John Edwards, Mike Huckabee
Driven by blaring Mellencamp and Springsteen soundtracks, union-laced Edwards' rallies have taken on the air of revival gatherings. Wizened grandmas, burly steelworkers and feisty union maids step forward to give passionate testimony about the abuse suffered at the hands of the corporate pirates. After that warm-up, the dazzlingly handsome Edwards appears onstage and unfailingly delivers an emotion-packed barnburner of a speech. See if you can get through just one of them with dry eyes. This goes way beyond traditional liberal politics and gets into some real soul-stirring Latin American-style populism. Too bad Americans aren't ready for this. Another bonus point for Edwards: His "rural consultant," Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, is as colorful and cornpone as his nickname implies. Spinmeister? For sure. But an entertaining and witty one.

That said, Mike Huckabee events can be just as eye-opening as Edwards', albeit in a different way. What's more fun on a subzero Iowa night than to roll into a retro dance hall and bump right into a crew of 21 Arizona home-schoolers who raised money all year just to come stump for Mike? Okay, the answer: getting a close-up look at Chuck Norris trying to put two consecutive sentences together. And then watching a bass-guitar-slinging Huckabee accompanied onstage by Joe Scarborough as they slam out some righteous rock.

Dreariest Campaign to Follow: Mitt Romney
Since I first bumped into Mitt somewhere in the cornfields of northern Iowa in midsummer, I've been to at least two dozen of his rallies and I can't distinguish a single moment from another. One long, interminable day, I was at four of them, and I don't think he deviated once from his stump script. Okay, all politicians are frauds to one degree or another, but few hit the 100 percent mark, except Mitt. It's hard to believe anything he says, frankly, and when I see actual human beings at his rallies occasionally nodding their heads, I begin to wonder if I should abandon any remaining hope in humanity. Or maybe these poor folks are just plain falling asleep.

Most Inefficient Campaign: Barack Obama
Let's take the charitable view and assume that Obama attracts a surplus of young, green volunteers who have good intentions but little experience. Fine. But it would be nice to get a few more adults into a few more strategic positions. Communications strategy is key to modern campaigns, and it's just plain wrong to leave that in the hands of bumblers who can't return phone calls, can't provide the contacts reporters need and generally are screw-ups. This is about winning the most important office in the land and beating the Clinton machine in getting there. No on-the-job training allowed.

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