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The race for White House enters prime time

  • Story Highlights
  • Labor Day has traditionally been kickoff for the race to the White House
  • Sen. Hillary Clinton leading Democrats but in tight race in Iowa
  • Rudy Giuliani leads Republicans, but pundits question if he will get nomination
  • "Law & Order" star Fred Thompson to officially enter race Thursday
  • Next Article in Politics »
Paul Steinhauser
CNN Deputy Political Director
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It's Labor Day, the traditional kickoff of the race for the White House. In the old days, this is when campaigning actually began. But that's been history for quite some time, and in this hectic, fast-paced 2008 campaign season, it's been full speed ahead since the beginning of the year.

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Sen. Hillary Clinton and former President Clinton campaign in Sioux City, Iowa, on Monday.

But while relatively few people across the country have been paying attention to the candidates up until now, more and more Americans will begin to tune in to what's happening.

"Think of this as prime time. It's sort of been off-Broadway. Now, this is the real thing," says CNN Senior Political Correspondent Candy Crowley.

"In the past, Labor Day has been the traditional kickoff to the campaign, but the 2008 race for the White House really began the day after the 2004 presidential election," chimes in CNN Political Editor Mark Preston, adding that now "each and every campaign stop counts. Most of the candidates will be spending their time in the key early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina."

And, because of that, just about all of the presidential candidates are out on the trail this long holiday weekend, reaching out to voters and hoping for headlines.

Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton pulled out the big gun -- her husband Bill Clinton, the former president of the United States. The Clintons are teaming up Monday in Iowa and Sunday in New Hampshire for what's being billed as her fall campaign kickoff.

The former president doesn't join his wife on the campaign trail that often. He's only used for big events.

The senator from New York is also trying out some new lines. She's been touting her experience for months, but now Clinton is also emphasizing that she'll be an agent of change, and that voters don't have to choose between experience and change.

Clinton has weathered attacks by some of her Democratic rivals, who charge that she's too entrenched with the status quo in Washington, and that she's too polarizing and not a breath of fresh air that can bring change. But Clinton told New Hampshire voters Sunday that "with me you don't have to choose. I've spent my whole life fighting for change."

Clinton's been the frontrunner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination since the get-go, and that's the way it remains. She leads just about all the national polls by double digits over her closest rival, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois.

But in some of the crucial early primary states, it's a closer race. Clinton, Obama and former senator and 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards are locked in a three-way battle for the top spot in the polls in Iowa.

The Hawkeye State caucus there kicks off the delegate selection process. In New Hampshire, which holds the first primary, and South Carolina, which holds the first southern primary, Clinton remains ahead by a comfortable margin in most polls.

Of course, polls are not the end-all. Remember, four years ago at this time, Howard Dean was skyrocketing in all the national surveys. The former Vermont governor and current Democratic National Committee chairman continued to surge into the autumn and early winter before crashing and burning in Iowa and New Hampshire in January 2004.

Obama may trail Clinton in the early national and state polls, but he does lead her in another crucial barometer, campaign cash. Obama's actually out-raised the vaunted Clinton fundraising machine. Obama is also drawing large crowds out on the trail. The first term senator from Illinois is in New Hampshire today, campaigning with his family.

Edwards scored two major labor endorsements this Labor Day. Edwards interrupted a two-day swing in Iowa to appear this morning in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to receive the endorsements of the United Steelworkers and the United Mine Workers of America. The two unions together represent nearly a million members.

Edwards has worked hard to be labor's best friend, and his efforts appear to be paying off. Edwards now has the endorsement of three major unions, ahead of Clinton, who has two union endorsements, and Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, who has one.

"Those are ground troops for Edwards to put into Iowa, some extra infusion of cash. He is hoping that, between Barack Obama, who sort of consistently runs second, and Hillary Clinton, he can find some running room," says Crowley.

Among the second-tier candidates, only Dodd has scored a major labor endorsement. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Delaware, says he's focusing almost exclusively on Iowa. That's the state where New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who's rising in the state polls, has a possible shot at cracking the first tier.

On the Republican side, the front-runner in the national polls is off the trail this Labor Day. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani is not campaigning this holiday weekend, but he'll be back on the trail Tuesday.

Giuliani took over the top position in the national polls from Arizona Sen. John McCain at the beginning of the year, and he's held the top spot ever since.

In the modern primary era, the Republican candidate in the top spot the September before the primaries has won the nomination. But there are questions about whether that will hold this time around. Giuliani is a moderate Republican whose views on crucial social issues differ from conservatives who dominate the Republican primaries.

"The punditry and the reporters in general, the politicos, have always had a hard time looking at Rudy Giuliani and his moderate-to-liberal social views and seeing how he can fit into a primary where the conservatives vote. Nonetheless, the Giuliani people think that what has happened in this election cycle is that people are far more interested in security and they view that as the strong point," says Crowley.

Giuliani, of course, is remembered by most Americans for his actions at Ground Zero in New York following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

But there's also another front-runner in the battle for the GOP presidential nomination. And that would be Mitt Romney. Even though he's low in the national polls, the former Massachusetts governor has a healthy lead in the state polls in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Romney's also number one among Republicans when it comes to the race for campaign cash. His large war chest has allowed him to spend millions on television ads in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

McCain's in Iowa this weekend. He's hoping to jump-start his campaign, which has faltered in recent months. The one time GOP front-runner has sunk in the polls and run low on campaign cash, forcing him to drop campaign staff.

As McCain fights to stay relevant, Mike Huckabee is a candidate on the rise. The former Arkansas governor, thanks to his strong showing in the GOP presidential debates, as well as his strong second place finish in the Ames, Iowa, straw poll last month, is generally considered the only second tier candidate with a shot at making it into the first tier.

The big question mark is Fred Thompson. The candidate-in-waiting is finally going to formally jump into the race for the White House this week. But many question whether the former senator from Tennessee and TV and film star missed his moment.

There was a lot of enthusiasm for Thompson earlier this year. But as he's pushed back his campaign kickoff, and, thanks in part to lackluster speeches, disappointing fundraising, critical stories about his lobbying and staff shakeups, some of that excitement's disappeared.

But Thompson is second to Giuliani in most national polls and he's competitive in the polls in the crucial early primary states. Plus, surveys show that Republican voters are less enthusiastic about their current crop of candidates than Democratic voters.

"The long honeymoon is over now for Fred Thompson," says Preston. "So far, he has not had to answer tough questions on a daily basis. Now, he will."

"He gets in this week. [There are] a lot of high expectations here. And the question is, can he live up to them?" adds Crowley.

So the bruising and long pre-season is finally over. "Relations are already strained between some of the candidates, and I expect it is only going to get worse in the coming months," says Preston.

So a hot campaign will only get hotter. And now most Americans will turn their attention to the race for the White House. Stay tuned. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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