Long-shot presidential hopefuls may not get elected, but they do tend to grow on you - especially when they're being marginalized, insulted and picked on by everyone else. With the first primaries about 150 days away, the front-running candidates and the media elite no doubt prefer to simplify things by getting rid of those who are given no chance to win.
And I thought the job of thinning out the crop of candidates went to voters, not to the powerful and the powerbrokers.
Try telling that to George Stephanopoulos. In a recent interview with Ron Paul, a Republican congressman from Texas, the host of ABC's "This Week" asked the candidate for his definition of success. Paul predictably responded that it was to win. "That's not going to happen," Stephanopoulos informed him. The candidate then asked the host if he was willing to bet "every cent in your pocket" that Paul couldn't win. Without hesitating, Stephanopoulos said, "Yes."
Then it was Mike Gravel's turn for a reality check. In an interview, Stephanopoulos asked the former senator which Democrat he intended to ultimately support. "I'm going to vote for myself," Gravel responded. "But you're not going to be president," Stephanopoulos told him.
On Sunday, Stephanopoulos moderated the latest debate between the eight Democratic candidates - which, apparently, by the ABC newsman's count, is about six candidates too many. For Stephanopoulos and others in the media, the contest is a two-person race between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. And to prove it, Stephanopoulos kicked off the debate in Des Moines with what he described as the "two questions that have really been dominating this race so far."
"Is Barack Obama ready to be president, experienced enough to be president?" he asked. "And can Sen. Clinton, Hillary Clinton, in part because of your experience, bring the country together and bring about the kind of change that all of you say the country needs?"
Wow. I know those were the questions on my mind. Not the candidates' positions on issues or strength of character or leadership qualities, but the horse race narrowed down to two candidates.
Apparently, not even former Sen. John Edwards needs to apply, despite the fact that he usually comes in third in polls behind Clinton and Obama. In fact, in an extra dose of humiliation, Stephanopoulos introduced the candidates with their standing among Iowa voters in a recent ABC News/Washington Poll. Obama had 27 percent, while Clinton and Edwards each had 26 percent - statistically a dead heat. The snub serves Edwards right. Several weeks ago, an open microphone caught him whispering to Clinton that, "we should try to have a more serious and a smaller group." Now, poetically, some folks in the media aren't taking Edwards seriously.
Meanwhile back in Des Moines, some candidates were so hungry for airtime that they took the bait and offered opinions about what sort of president Obama or Clinton might make. It was painful watching most of the other candidates - including two senators, a governor, a congressman and two former senators - degrade themselves by morphing into political analysts. It was as if they were all conceding they would not get the nomination and so why not tell us what they think of someone who actually has a chance to win.
Only Rep. Dennis Kucinich had the character to refuse to play along. He blasted the debate as "insufficient" and scolded Stephanopoulos for "trying to polarize people out of the race." And, Kucinich insisted, Americans should have a real choice, not one based on polls.
Bravo. As I said, the long shots can grow on you. But can they, in the next few months, overcome the odds and grow their support to respectable levels?
Not likely. Some may prefer to think otherwise, but opinion polls do count. So do fundraising and the strength of one's campaign organization and the type of media coverage they get. There is a reason that the front-runners are who they are. One way or another, they earned their spots in the front of the pack.
This will all sort itself out. But what's the rush? The field will be winnowed down soon enough. So why speed up the process? It's not fair to the candidates, and it's not healthy for our democracy.
That's the message we hear over and over again from the long shots. And by spreading it, they're making a valuable contribution. Campaign 2008 would be much duller without them.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.'s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2007 Hearst Communications Inc.