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August is Hell for Political Pundits

By Tom Bevan

August may be fun for you, but this year it's hell for political pundits. Instead of relaxing vacations with the family or lazy weekends spent paging through the newest best seller, we're chasing presidential candidates all over the country and anguishing over how to come up with some clever new angle to a race that has already been analyzed to death. Being trapped in pundit hell in the middle of summer is doubly ironic, of course, because most of what's happening right now will have little or no effect on the outcome anyway.

The Iowa Republican straw poll is a perfect example. Often referred to as the first "big test" for Republican presidential hopefuls, the event took place last week in Ames for the first time since 1999.

The hoopla leading up to the event was diminished somewhat when Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Fred Thompson announced they wouldn't be taking part. But this only prompted another rash of commentary speculating on just how important the "big test" would be if most of the major players were missing.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of Iowa Republicans descended on the campus of Iowa State University, bused in from all across the state and plied with food and entertainment at the expense of the candidates. It was, as always, a giant spectacle and a fund-raising bonanza for the Iowa Republican party (which pockets the proceeds) accompanied by much anticipation and heavy breathing in the local and national press.

So the straw poll came and went and in the end we learned . . . close to nothing. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won by a decent margin, as expected. Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson finished poorly -- as predicted by everyone except Thompson -- and dropped out of the race the next day.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee provided the only spark of interest, winning a round of plaudits from the media for a "better than expected" second-place finish. In practical terms, this means Huckabee's meager 2,587 vote total was 395 votes better than Sen. Sam Brownback, who finished third. Interesting? Yes. But it hardly qualifies as a race-changing revelation, which is how some have made it out to be.

Overall, just 14,302 ballots were cast on Saturday -- a 40 percent decline from 1999. Even with the notable absences from this year's event, that number may indicate Republicans are less than thrilled with their choices this year, or just not as excited as they were eight years ago after living through two terms of Bill Clinton.

Who knows? It's all speculation at this point, which is why it's foolish to draw any hard conclusions or confer any special importance on what happened in Ames.

As hard as it is to believe, the presidential race isn't even going to kick into high gear until after Labor Day, when you folks get back from your vacations, put down your books and start paying more attention. Then things will really begin to get interesting, perhaps especially on the Republican side, where Fred Thompson is set to enter the race at the beginning of September to see if he can shake it up in a significant way.

So, pardon me for saying, but I can't wait for August to be over. I want out of pundit hell.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com

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