Fineman: Bracketology for the 2008 Race

With 19 candidates (so far), and too many debates to count, even the politically obsessed are having trouble sorting things out. Who are these people anyway? Which of them are competing for the same shelf space? To help simplify things, and of course to pay homage to the start of the NBA finals, I offer my first tournament-bracket guide to the 2008 presidential race.

I've divided the conferences (Democrats and Republicans) into pairs. To advance in the tournament, candidates will have to win their respective first-round matchups—in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina or, in the case of Democrats, Nevada. Winners move on to the Big Dance next Feb. 5, the mega/giga/tera national assemblage of primaries that is likely to decide the nominees.

Surveying the conferences, it's remarkable how neatly the candidates fall into their first-round pairings. The lone exception is Rep. Ron Paul, the vehemently anti-war GOP candidate from Texas, of all places. A Libertarian, he is a one-man play-in game, a bracket unto himself—unless Sen. Chuck Hagel plunges in.

Since the Republicans are debating on CNN tonight in New Hampshire, I'll start with them. Alhough Sen. Fred Thompson isn't officially in the race, and therefore won't be in the Manchester, I include him in the pairings. He formed an exploratory committee—evidence of his desire. He did not renew his contract with "Law and Order" on NBC—proof that he indeed is getting in.

Northeast Former Flaming Libs.
This is Red Sox-Yankees in another forum, pitting "two formers" against each other: Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Mayor Rudy Giuliani. They are following opposite routes to the same goal: the forbearance, if not the outright enthusiasm, of the GOP's religious base even tough neither man is an Evangelical Christian. Romney approaches these voters on bended knee, his social-issue positions revamped from top to bottom. Rudy, sticking to his guns, is appealing to their love of stout (even authoritarian) crusader leadership.

Tough-Guy Senatorial Bush Backers.
Sen. John McCain is the ultimate peace-through-strength guy in the Senate, an all-out defender of the aims of the war in Iraq. Fred Thompson played a somewhat similar character on TV: Arthur Branch, the no-nonsense D.A. McCain these days is in a war of words with Romney over immigration, but the senators real natural antagonist in the political jungle is Thompson, especially since both are actively seeking the support of George Bush's financial network. Early in their respective careers, the two men were Richard Nixon protégés. Both are former outsiders now pursuing an inside route. In the old days, they were like Jack Kerouac, barreling around in vehicles of independence: McCain's bus, Thompson's pickup.

Back-to-the-Future Main Street Cultural Throwbacks.
Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee brim with defiantly down-home unassuming traditionalism, and make right-to-life views central to their pitch. In both cases, the cornpone masks considerable intellectual and political savvy, just as the Grand Ol' Opry hid its sales and marking sophistication behind a Minnie Pearl "Howdee!"

Resentfully Underappreciated Former Governors.
Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore have much in common, including a record of accomplishment as state administrators, and a long, loyal but somewhat strained history to George W. Bush, with and for whom they both worked at one time or another. Both men tend to think of themselves as practical, governing conservatives, whose prosaic accomplishments have not been sufficiently recognized.

Representatives Duncan Hunter of California and Tom Tancredo of Colorado are two peas in the Republican pod on many issues, but particularly on immigration. Hunter, of San Diego, is the man most responsible for the fence on the border near his home town; Tancredo takes a back seat to no man in his determination to stop the flow of illegal (Latino) immigration.

Non-White-Male, Senate-Based Frontrunners.
It is a testament to changing times, to the societal digestive powers of America—and, some say, to the Democrats' instinct for their own jugular—that the party's frontrunners are a stoical former First Lady despised by half the country and an African-American senator with the middle name of Hussein. Still, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama are formidable talents, and their presence at center stage gives the Democrats a chance to be the party of the future in a multidimensional 21st century world. If the issue is change, is Hillary's gender enough to make that case? If the challenge is to unite the country, does Obama have the strength to match his smile? Hillary has the machine; Obama has the dream.

Southern/Southwestern Outsiders Who Were Insiders.
Gov. Bill Richardson and John Edwards have seen Washington from the inside—the former as a Clinton cabinet member, the latter as a U.S. senator.  Now they are back home, in New Mexico and North Carolina, respectively, claiming to speak truth to the Power they once were part and parcel of. The son of a Mexican and the son of a mill worker, each cites his personal experience, and his regional roots, as central to his candidacy.

Distinguished Senior Senators with Grit and Blarney.
Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, friends and rivals, have been in the U.S. Senate, collectively, for more than half a century. Both are exemplars of the best of the Irish-American political mind at work: savvy, delighting in life and its ironies, lovers of amusing characters and healthy combat. Both know a lot about the world, having applied their street smarts to the planet entire. Are they both a tad too "senatorial"—meaning that they spend too much time talking about markups and moving legislation? Of course. There is not a shred of naiveté in either one. These days, that is a good credential.

Anti-war Grassroots (Tom) Paines-in-the-Neck.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Alaska Gov. Mike Gravel speak directly from and to the out-of-Iraq, never-should-have-gone-into-Iraq core of the Democratic Party. The televised debates are a special godsend to them and, some would argue, to a party that needs to have a real, soul-searching debate about how, if at all, its foreign policy would fundamental differ from that of George W. Bush. Choose your literary reference: Banquo's Ghost of Greek Chorus. Either way they are a nagging conscience, posing questions that the soundbiters out front don't want to answer.

So that's the lineup for now. I'll have to redo the whole thing if Al Gore gets in, of course. But he's a conference of his own.