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First Glance

From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Andrew Merten
Everyone from economists to your average investor keeps their eyes on the market after yesterday's big stock plunge; Senate Democrats have postponed debate over repealing the 2002 war authorization; their colleagues in the House continue to discuss how to proceed with Bush's war-spending request; and the longest presidential campaign in memory keeps trucking along.

With the campaigns already skirmishing in public, rallies attracting thousands of attendees, numerous high-profile fundraisers raking in millions, and even one prominent candidate (Romney) already airing TV ads, it's worth repeating that the presidential election is still more than 600 days away. Just how early has it started? Consider that your First Read team, who seemed to cover every minute of the 2004 presidential campaign for NBC, hadn't even begun working for the network at this point in the '04 cycle.

While individual campaigns have gotten off to early starts before (think Jimmy Carter's bid in 1976), what's different about this cycle is that the entire field, save a possible additional candidate or two, is already up and running. And, per longtime political observers, that could produce a series of unintended consequences.

Theoretically, for example, the longer campaign and nominating process could give an underdog a greater chance of winning a party's nomination, because there's simply more time for the frontrunner to stumble. Or it could make it harder for the underdogs, says nonpartisan political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "The full sprint we are now in makes it impossible for long-shots to define themselves, bond with voters, and make their cases."

In addition, the long campaign could lead to less substantive news, since the candidates will have to spend more time fundraising (usually behind closed doors) just to make it through the primaries. NBC political analyst Charlie Cook adds that the intense scrutiny could also diminish the significance of all but the worst campaign gaffes. "Had the Obama 'wasted' remark been in the last week before Iowa or New Hampshire, wouldn't it have been more damaging?" he asks. (While campaigning in Iowa earlier in the month, Obama said, "We ended up launching a war that should have never been authorized and should have never been waged to which we now have spent over $400 billion and have seen over 3,000 lives of the bravest young Americans wasted" -- which produced some mild controversy.)

But the greatest consequence, Rothenberg says, could be voter fatigue. "I can't see how voters can't grow tired of the saturated coverage. Certainly we are seeing every molehill made into a mountain."

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Marty Meehan (D) holds a press conference introducing legislation that would repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military. Joining Meehan will be Eric Alva, a retired Marine who was the first injured soldier in the Iraq war, and Alva will announce for the first time that he is gay. Although not a front-burner issue, many of the oh-eight candidates have staked out positions on "don't ask, don't tell." All the Democratic front-runners (Clinton, Edwards, Obama) support its repeal, while McCain and Romney want to maintain it; Giuliani, to the best of our knowledge, hasn't commented on it.

Elsewhere, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley easily won a sixth term yesterday. The jury in the Libby trial continues its deliberations today. And fresh off his documentary's Oscar -- and new speculation about whether he will jump into the race -- Al Gore gives a lecture tonight at the University of Miami (FL).