WASHINGTON – This isn't your parents' presidential election.
The traditional formula for success has been thrown out in this 2008 race for the White House. Key indicators that used to make up a winning campaign have apparently been subjected to a changing tide in American politics.
Do the old-school factors matter anymore? Some examples of conventional wisdom upended:
— The First-States-First Strategy: Rudy Giuliani
The former New York City mayor leads the polls nationally, but his strategy of ignoring the first-in-the nation Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary has severely cut into his media coverage, creating a sense of absenteeism while he works the Feb. 5 Tsunami Tuesday primary states.
A dearth in face time, despite several ad buys, has made room for other contenders to shove elbows in news coverage and gain traction. Mike Huckabee, for instance, has been grabbing headlines. As a result, he recently passed Giuliani in polls in Florida, a critical state that Giuliani has dominated for months.
"No one has ever won the nomination who has lost the first four primaries," said FOX News contributor and Weekly Standard publisher Bill Kristol. "The most important thing to understand about presidential races in the United States is that they are sequential state caucuses and primaries. What happens in one state affects the other. ... Giuliani bet everything on being able to not do very well in the first three or four or five primaries and come back in Florida and the big February 5th California, New York, et cetera. Maybe he'll be able to do it. It's a very fluid race."
On the contrary, other states could tumble as Giuliani fails to make appearances in the coverage-heavy starter states, but that hasn't stopped him. The campaign is working on the notion that as the other candidates beat each other up, Giuliani can step in relatively unscathed.
"An important objective throughout has been to keep the race wide open until February 5th. With the increased spending and negativity of Governor Romney’s campaign, the rise of Governor Huckabee and the staying power of McCain, the fluidity looks like it will keep this race wide open past the first few states. Our actions will allow us to marshal our resources for Florida and February 5th, while keeping options open for changes in the early states. Our strategy continues to be to do well enough in the early states to win our share of delegates, but we have always approached this race from a longer-term, national perspective," a senior Giuliani aide told FOX News.
— Endorsements: John McCain and Barack Obama
Case Study #1 — McCain has won the backing of the Manchester Union-Leader, the Des Moines Register, the Boston Globe and The Portsmouth Herald, and on top of that managed to get his good friend, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, a lifelong Democrat, to turn his back on his own party's candidates in favor of the Republican contender. During Republican presidential primary debates, the former Navy airman and POW has won praise even from his fellow contestants. But for all the public kudos and acknowledgement, along with generally favorable media coverage and opinion polls, the Arizona senator is running second in must-win New Hampshire and fifth in all-important Iowa. With three weeks left until the initial voting, McCain's camp is doing all it can to turn institutional backing into public popularity.
Case Study #2 — Obama has surpassed the celebrity endorsement and gone straight to cultural icon endorsement with the backing of media mogul Oprah Winfrey. Known by her first name only, Oprah has helped Obama draw tens of thousands of potential voters to events in early voting states of Iowa and South Carolina, all free. While most voters polled said that Oprah's endorsement doesn't translate into a vote for Obama, when attendees went to see Oprah, the campaigns limited entry to those who wrote down their names, addresses and e-mails. That enables a massive get-out-the-vote effort among potential supporters who are clearly willing to link Oprah's popularity with Obama's performance.
— Advisers: Hillary Clinton
With the largest number of well-known and well-respected advisers consulting the New York senator, Clinton should be head and shoulders above the rest. But her chief cheerleader, the former commander in chief, Mr. Hillary Clinton, has upset the apple cart by trying to manage her campaign and focus the attention on himself.
Likewise, the campaign is said to be facing a crisis of polarity, in which advisers are pulling from both sides, leaving Clinton trying to divorce herself from her own team and stay above the fray. This may or may not work. Among the recent flubs are advisers and volunteers undermining their candidate by making suggestive and seemingly libelous claims about Obama's past drug use and his patriotism. Those charges haven't helped Clinton in Iowa, where Obama and John Edwards are vying with her for the top spot in a too-close-to-call race.
"There was a memo in the middle of summer that in retrospect looked like sage advice, advising her to skip Iowa," said Tom Bevan of Realclearpolitics.com. "Imagine what the race would look like now if Barack Obama and John Edwards were going at it in Iowa and she were floating above the fray, building a firewall in New Hampshire, running a national campaign. Right now, she's involved, she's sort of bogged down in a quagmire over there, and had to go negative on Obama, which has really hurt the image that her campaign spent months and months crafting."
Clinton's team began on Monday a new effort to put a friendly face on the campaign. After a series of chatty morning news appearances, Clinton's campaign launched a new Web site featuring about 35 friends and supporters talking about ways Clinton changed theirs and others' lives for the better.
Clinton must also overcome the two-for-one factor that arises from being wife of the former president, said Mark Halperin, a political analyst for ABC News and Time.com. Bill Clinton has the ability to "talk the owls down from the trees," but Hillary Clinton is successfully crawling out from under his shadow, if only she can stave off those trying to serve her other best interests.
"I think she's established herself as an independent political force, here in Iowa and nationally, so that 'overshadow' thing is not an issue," Halperin told FOX News. "The problem is ... when he reminds people of the Clinton years of being Clintonian in a way that people don't like, and I think President Clinton is aware of that ... he is going to occasionally cause her trouble. But on balance, look they wouldn't be bringing him back to Iowa if they didn't think he was a net plus. Pundits may not like him. The right may not like him, but within the Democratic party, he's still the most popular figure around."
— Fundraising: Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul
Case Study #1: Whoever said money can't buy friends clearly didn't tell Romney. The former Massachusetts governor, whose financial holdings far exceed all his rivals, has dumped millions of his own money into his campaign, not unlike also-rans Steve Forbes and Ross Perot in prior races. In all, Romney has raised or financed almost $63 million at the end of the third quarter of this year.
Still, while money is no guarantee of the nomination, it certainly doesn't hurt, and the financing has helped inundate Iowa and New Hampshire voters with television ads — 17,000 runs for Romney ads compared to 10,000 for the next biggest advertiser, Obama. Romney has also bought a large staff with a lot of people who would normally be volunteers serving as paid staffers. In addition, Romney has followed the strategy of Republican guru Karl Rove by investing in microtargeting in Iowa, which can only be considered extreme marketing, picking out sure-fire votes from a list of well-vetted potential voters.
Case Study #2: All that Romney money begs the question — why is Mike Huckabee leading in Iowa? In the past month, Huckabee raised just $2 million, and until Oct. 29 had raised only $2.3 million. The doubling of his finances has enabled him to expand his ad buys by several hundred thousand dollars in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, increase his paid staff to 10 (and growing) and begin Iowa mailings. It still pales in comparison to the Romney machine, especially in Iowa, but Huckabee's faith message is working. As much as 50 percent of Iowa Republican caucus goers are evangelical Christians and Huckabee has been sure to belt out his religious beliefs, even airing an ad wishing voters a Merry Christmas with images of the cross floating behind him.
Whether the investment pays off may depend on which candidate steps over the line. Romney and Huckabee are neck-and-neck in Iowa, and one false move, not the cash comparison, could end up being the decisive factor.
Case Study #3: The Texas congressman's anti-war, U.S.-is-bogeyman message would seemingly make him a pariah among the Republican Party base. He also ranks near the bottom of most polls.
Still, Paul can't be ignored when it comes to the money game. He surpassed all previous fundraising records on Sunday, raising more than $6 million online in one day, in turn giving him more than $18 million this quarter. The campaign has attracted 118,000 contributors, with nearly 25,000 new donors just Sunday.
"We have the right message: freedom, peace and prosperity," said Ron Paul 2008 campaign chairman Kent Snyder. "We also have the right candidate: Dr. Ron Paul."
Paul's numbers have risen from nonexistent to about 5 percent in the last couple months, not enough to win the nomination, but certainly enough to motivate his irrationally exuberant, but small, core of supporters, who have frustrated poll-takers and opinion makers by unfairly weighting online polls and loading down talk radio shows with phone calls. That may cause Paul to lose credibility among news coverage providers, but it certainly has drawn notice.
— No Faith in Politics: Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama
Case Study #1: It's been many decades since the candidate who submerged his campaign speeches in scriptural references won the hearts and minds of voters, so long ago that as far back as 1960, John F. Kennedy had to deliver a speech promising that his Catholic faith would not impact his job performance. Perhaps because of the dangerous current events that dominate news coverage and fears that the country needs something more powerful than man (or woman) to do its bidding, Huckabee has been attracting Republican primary voters with his Baptist background and evangelical platitudes.
Case Study #2: On the flip side, Mitt Romney has had to deliver his own "Kennedy faith speech," describing his ideas for the role of faith in politics. The devout Mormon has impressed voters throughout the country with his smooth style and good looks but time and again has had to fight off charges that his religion is a cult. As a result, religion has so far played a much greater role in this election than it has in the past, something Romney continuously tries to lessen by noting that the religion he practices is a complete inversion of the religious test that the founding fathers opposed as a disqualification for an elected candidate.
"I'm not running for pastor-in-chief, I'm running for president of the United States," he said Sunday.
Case Study #3: In a similar vein, Barack Obama has also had to defend himself against accusations that he is not Christian. Obama's staffers say they have had to win over voters by discounting persistent Internet rumors that the candidate — whose middle name is "Hussein" — is not a Muslim. Those rumors, by the way, were perpetuated in part by two volunteer coordinators of Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign, who were fired for their actions.
To dispel the rumors, Obama went to church on Sunday, the first time in a long while since he appeared in Mason, Iowa's First Congregational United Church of Christ.
"What I found during the course of this work was, one, that ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they come together and find common ground," he told the congregation. "The other thing I discovered was that values of honesty, hard work, empathy, compassion were values that were spoken about in church .... I realized that Scripture and the words of God fit into the values I was raised in."
Face the Strange Changes
Of course, not everything has changed on the campaign trail.
"It's a mix. There are some things that look like what we've seen in the last 30 years," said Richard Murray, a University of Houston political science professor and director of the Research Statistics Institute at the university's Center for Public Policy. Murray noted that a huge chunk of time and money is still collectively spent in Iowa and New Hampshire
"The exaggerated importance of those states is going to hold in this cycle despite Giuliani taking a risk," he said.
Still, many changes have occurred.
"All the major candidates who can afford to eschew public money" have done so, Murray said. "We never had a February 5th before. The Internet, the blogging (that) wasn't much of a factor until 2004 is full-bore this go around.
"It's a fascinating presidential cycle ... glad I'm not trying to figure out for a campaign what to do... (There are) a lot of uncharted waters here and we'll be a lot better analyzing this in 2009 than we are on the fly in 2007."
FOX News' Aaron Bruns, Serafin Gomez and Mosheh Oinounou contributed to this report.