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First glance


From Elizabeth Wilner and Mark Murray.
This weekend brings an exceptional series of events in the presidential race, with Barack Obama giving his announcement speech and Hillary Clinton making her first foray to New Hampshire as a candidate.  But the crowds and attention certain to be drawn by these two reinforces that all the energy at this early stage of the race is with the Democrats, and that the Republican field is failing to enthuse the party base, inspire the press, or -- with the exception of Rudy Giuliani -- capture the public's imagination.

Conservatives lack a favorite among the party's top tier of candidates.  The media's love affair with John McCain's underdog, shoestring effort of 2000 dissipated as the 2008 version grew into McCain, Inc.  The press corps is also skeptical of Giuliani's ability to go the distance and win the nomination.  Former Gov. Mitt Romney is too little known.  And overall, the party is still contending with the cold front of public opinion that froze them out of the majority last November and continues today because of President Bush's unpopular policies on Iraq.  All three of the top candidates support a US troop increase. 

The weekend's main event on the GOP side is Giuliani's address to the California GOP convention tomorrow. 

Symbolism plays a central role in any presidential announcement.  John Kerry officially declared his candidacy in front of an aircraft carrier in 2003, a reminder of his military background.  Joe Lieberman did it from his old high school in Stamford, CT with a later trip for a "cup of joe with Joe" to emphasize his folksy charm.  And in this current campaign, John Edwards made his in New Orleans, an obvious nod to his crusade against poverty. 

Yet the symbolism of Obama's announcement tomorrow from the historic Old State Capitol in Springfield, IL appears to address at least three different themes Obama wants to get across -- his call for national unity, his experience (or lack thereof), and his race.

Springfield's Old State Capitol is where Abraham Lincoln gave his famous 1858 "House Divided" speech, in which he railed against slavery and how it had torn the nation into two.  ("A house divided against itself cannot stand.")  Lincoln's appeal for unity in that speech dovetails with one of Obama's key messages: that he's someone who can transcend the current partisan divide.  "Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions," he said in his online announcement of his exploratory committee last month.  "We have to change our politics, and come together around our common interests and concerns as Americans."

The reference to Lincoln addresses another theme for Obama: the charge that he's too inexperienced to be president.  Like Obama, Lincoln spent eight years in the Illinois legislature.  Also like Obama, Lincoln served just two full years in Congress before running for president.  (You could argue, though, that the world today is much different than it was nearly 150 years ago.)  Of course, the invocation of the president who freed the slaves in the South is a not-too-subtle reminder that Obama could become the nation's first African-American president. 

However, Obama and his staff might not have thought of this: Lincoln gave that 1858 speech after being selected as the Republican nominee to run for the Senate against Democrat Stephen Douglas, and Lincoln actually lost that race.  He defeated Douglas (and others) in the presidential election two years later.

The other contender making a debut of sorts is Clinton, who takes her first tour of New Hampshire as a presidential candidate this weekend.  Watching Clinton's campaign "try to go from nascent to juggernaut in under three weeks has top Republican operatives smiling in recognition and even admiration," one of us writes on MSNBC.com.  "Her effort is ever more reminiscent of a recent national candidate with a famous name who benefited from a well-tended aura of inevitability, record-shattering fundraising, and a disciplined staff who were aggressive in dealing with the press."