None of them have yet said they are running, but they are. They know it. You know it. We all know it. It's too early to say who will stay in the race, but now is time to pick up the pace, quite literally, in the most serious cases. Back and forth, crisscrossing the nation in pursuit of the photo op that will put them on the front page of the local daily. The performance art that is politicking demands they must shake as many hands as offered, smile for requested snapshots, autograph napkins and, remember, kiss only the cutest babies.

The ones earliest out of the gate and who attain frontrunner status will go on performing the kabuki-like rituals of presidential politics for the better part of three years. That's if they ever want to see the finish line, let alone cross it first. And... they've only just begun. Now is the season to test the waters. Measure support. Test out the prospective stump speech. Hone the sound bites. Assess audience response. Temper controversial stances. Modulate rhetoric on hot-button topics. If you can, avoid them altogether and make a beeline for the smiley infant.

But when the theatrics are over and the undeclared candidate is back on the non-campaign bus trundling on to give the next non-presidential campaign speech, success at each stop-off is calculated in dollars and cents. For by this measure alone does a potential candidate for the presidency evaluate his or her chances three years hence. A nod of support, a promise of help, are given the ring of sincere commitment accompanied by a fat check or cold cash. Money is validation.

Money buys the voter's ear. If heard, conviction can be realized in cash and the machine rolls on. The front-runners among the undeclared already have tens of millions in their campaign coffers. They'll need 10 times that much and more to complete the race. Actually, they must run two races. First they must convince the party faithful, the folks who most think as they do. And having run that gauntlet, offer themselves to national scrutiny.

It's a perilous undertaking. In running the first set of hurdles a candidate can all too easily confound their chances for the final. Placating the sectional interests that must coalesce to make a winner in the primary season inevitably imperils the campaign after it's exposed to a broader perspective. But there's no avoiding the risk. To have a shot in the main event, candidates must speak out of all sides of their mouths. Nuance the controversial into virtual meaninglessness and pander to the patriotic. We criticize them for doing it, but demand that they do.

Straight talk sounds so grand, so in tune with the nation's highest aspirations. It doesn't work though. The straightest shooter of them all, Sen. John McCain, went down in flames in 2000 speaking his mind riding the Straight Talk Express. Now McCain is back, seeking to replace the man who did him wrong. And his newfound mastery of the political curveball is probably the best predictor of his showing come the primaries two years from now. His rivals will ignore the lesson he learned at great cost. She, who is touted most likely to meet him on the national field, needs no classes.

But winning the prize they have their eyes on is not solely contingent on what and how they do. Intervening is the perpetual round of politicking that attends the Congressional cycle. With ownership of Capitol Hill as closely contested as it is today, the entire political process is hamstrung by the urge not to disturb the money-generating equilibrium.

Thus it becomes an act of political heroism to broach such controversial issues as Social Security reform or Medicare. Kudos to the guys willing to risk their political futures, but remember, when the going gets tough, the tough usually depart the scene. Making it even tougher to stay true to the cause of public service is the constant need in America's state of perpetual election to placate the demands of all those 'special' interests, which, together, keeps them in power.

Such is the act we demand they perform. We applaud and send money in one breath, and in the next, dismiss and vilify them. Without a major shift in the way parliamentary business is conducted in the U.S., pursuit of avoiding it for fear of professional suicide will persist. But why when it comes to electing a president is it necessary to endure three years of the play-acting? Wouldn't as many months, even weeks, be enough time to establish which of the candidates does best at offending the least number of people? After all, there's a country to run.

Tav Murray lives in Christiana. His e-mail address is acmurray@epix.net.

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