It' s no longer true that presidential races begin on Labor Day (unless Presidents Day counts as the new Labor Day). But even with this year's unprecedented early maneuvering, the contest still heats up as autumn temperatures cool. The exchanges between candidates sharpen; the advertising wars intensify; voters focus more intently.
"Voters in early states for a while simply process what they are told by the political media," says Democratic strategist Jim Jordan, an advisor to the campaign of Sen. Christopher Dodd. "But by November or December they have seen enough with their own eyes to form their own impressions. And that's when races start to move."
With Labor Day past, and that potential movement ahead, it's a good moment to pinpoint the key questions that could decide each party's nomination. One fundamental difference separates the two races: Democrats have a genuine front-runner -- Sen. Hillary Clinton -- and Republicans don't. That contrast shapes the pivotal issues on each side.
There's no mystery about the most pressing question for Democrats: Can anyone stop Hillary? The answer largely will turn on two other questions.
First: Can change, or ideology or electoral viability trump experience? One pillar of Clinton's strength is that polls show Democratic voters see her as tougher, more experienced and better prepared for the presidency than her principal rivals, Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards.
The two men are trying to overcome that advantage mostly by insisting they represent a more profound change in direction. Obama, attempting a form of jujitsu, argues that his lack of time in Washington makes him more qualified than Clinton to change the capital and unify the country. Edwards maintains he's more committed than Clinton (or Obama) to confronting big business and achieving liberal change.
These arguments will resonate with Democrats who find Clinton either too polarizing or too accommodating. Clinton's challengers also will find support from Democrats who doubt she can win a general election or are reluctant to reopen the controversies of the Bill Clinton era.
But the early evidence is that these concerns alone won't topple Hillary Clinton. She remains competitive with the top GOP candidates in general-election polls, blunting the viability argument. Fatigue with Bill Clinton exists, but most Democrats remember his presidency positively. And she is identifying with the Democratic hunger for change by cleverly arguing that she has the experience to deliver the change her rivals promise. All of that suggests Clinton's challengers probably can't catch her without burnishing their own credentials on strength and preparation -- and tarnishing hers.
The other critical question for Democrats is whether anyone can loosen Clinton's hold on working-class voters, especially women. Obama runs well with upscale, well-educated voters -- but Clinton's competitive there and dominant among Democrats without college degrees. And in most states, the downscale Democrats who now favor Clinton outnumber the upscale voters most disposed toward Obama.
For Republicans, the immediate question is whether former Sen. Fred Thompson, who is due to join the race Thursday, can gain traction. Even some Thompson supporters worry he has hesitated too long, squandering the early excitement about his candidacy.
Thompson's performance may decide another pivotal GOP question: Can anyone unite social conservatives? The party's largest voting bloc still isn't entirely sold on any of the candidates. If social conservatives remain divided, especially in the showdown state of South Carolina (scheduled to vote on Jan. 19), that will help Rudolph Giuliani, the most socially moderate contender. One indicator to watch: Can the heavyweight fraternity of social conservatives (such as Focus on the Family's James Dobson) privately auditioning the candidates agree on an endorsement this fall?
Another question looming over both sides is the effect of the ever-accelerating primary calendar. As more states schedule January primaries, Iowa and New Hampshire appear likely to vote no later than Jan. 8. That widens the space between those first contests and the 20-state avalanche of primaries on Feb. 5, potentially altering the race's dynamic.
Giuliani has bet heavily on the Feb. 5 states and Florida one week earlier. But that now may be too long to wait for a breakthrough. The traditional path to the GOP nomination has been to win either Iowa or New Hampshire and then South Carolina; if one candidate manages that feat in 2008, the race could effectively end before Feb. 5.
"The nomination could be won in January," insists Tom Rath, a New Hampshire strategist advising Mitt Romney. Romney, in fact, appears best positioned for such an early sweep, which the other Republicans may increasingly focus on preventing.
The new calendar creates opportunities and risks for Clinton. If she stumbles early (especially in New Hampshire), it could allow a rival to build momentum before the Feb. 5 showdown. But if she takes Iowa and New Hampshire -- and she's likely to win the second if she does the first -- she could end the race right then. It's only September, but the clock is ticking for the Democrats chasing Clinton.