The scene at the July premiere of the new movie The Great Raid had the giddy, cultivated intrigue of a Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes photo op--or as close as you can come in Washington. A full hour after the scheduled start, the couple that everyone was waiting for finally touched down on the red carpet. They posed together with practiced ease, a pair so appealing and yet so unlikely that you had to wonder what had brought them together: chemistry or ambition? "Ladies and gentlemen," Miramax chairman Harvey Weinstein proclaimed as they swept into the packed theater, "I'd like to introduce you to the first, great 2008 bipartisan presidential ticket--I'll let them figure out the order to that--Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator John McCain!"
That idea of a dream ticket could happen only in the movies, of course. But the buzz that greets Clinton and McCain these days tells you something about what's increasingly apparent in real-world politics: the 2008 race is already taking shape, and the shape it is taking looks very much like these two potential rivals. Should McCain and Clinton each decide to make a bid--and most people around them expect it--both would become their party's instant front runner, which is not an entirely good thing. In an open field without an incumbent President or Vice President, as both parties will have for the first time in more than a half-century, it's perilous to be the one upon whom everyone else is training fire. McCain and Clinton would be running against not only a crop of other party rivals but also the perceptions and expectations that voters already have of them. "The other people running for President get to introduce themselves," says Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel, who worked as a top aide in the Clinton White House. "That's not true for her, and that's not true for McCain."
Clinton's and McCain's story lines would be set and would even have a synchronicity to them. Clinton would be declared unstoppable in her party's primary but doomed in the general election. For McCain, that bet would be made in reverse. Clinton would have the money; McCain would have the media. Each would be haunted by another President: for her, the one she is married to; for him, the one who beat him the last time he ran. And if it should come to a head-to-head race between them? It could be a close one: a recent Gallup poll showed McCain in front, 50% to 45%.
At this early stage, part of the trick to leading the pack is insisting that you aren't part of it. The other part is making sure you take everyone's attention away from the people who are. As less familiar hopefuls start making the rounds in Iowa and New Hampshire, McCain and Clinton say they are too busy with their day jobs--and, in her case, a Senate re-election race--to be giving 2008 more than an occasional thought. Both declined interviews for this story linking their prospects, a reticence that is not unusual for her but something that occurs with roughly the frequency of a lunar eclipse where he is concerned.