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The Winnowing Month

By Salena Zito

Labor Day is here and the political hunting season is in full swing. Never mind that this traditional Labor Day kick-off to the presidential election is 14 months, not two months, before the main event.

And on Wednesday night, Fox News Channel will host the first debate of the fall season. Republicans will be at the podiums at the University of New Hampshire.

"There is going to be a lot more public attention on this debate," said Dan Schnur, a political science lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley.

Since the first debates this spring, the back and forth among the candidates has matured. They have better defined themselves and their opponents and they are more engaged with one another.

"Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace, one of the questioners this week, says that while you never can predict what will happen on stage, "you will probably see front-runner (Rudy) Giuliani taking hits from (Mitt) Romney and (John) McCain, dark horse Mick Huckabee drawing more contrasts -- and then there will be the (Fred) Thompson factor."

Thompson's absence and his decision to announce his candidacy hours after the debate will cause quite a stink, Wallace said.

"You are going to see a lot of his rivals ... taking potshots at him."

Wallace considers sleeper-candidate Huckabee a good example of why debates are so important. "He is just this terrifically appealing, sensible character on the stage and has really stood out at all of the debates since day one."

Not surprisingly, Huckabee agrees that the debates have helped him. "It has given me a chance to be heard at a level that sometimes the coverage of my campaign hasn't hit," he said.

One reason Huckabee thinks he does well in debates is that "people sense that I am actually answering questions spontaneously, not reading off some card that has been printed in the back of my head by a room full of consultants."

And that could be the key to Huckabee raising much-needed campaign cash.

But as Huckabee's profile has risen, so too has the criticism from those he'd prefer to have in his corner. Topping the list is The Club for Growth, which credibly contests the former Arkansas governor's claims of fiscal frugality.

As with any debate, Wednesday's will only be an "event" if a candidate makes it one. Someone needs to choose to make news -- to create controversy, or pick a fight. And the one who does stands to gain a lot.

Wallace points to the clash between Ron Paul and Rudy Giuliani as the perfect example:

"Rudy had one of those moments in South Carolina where Ron Paul was talking about 9/11. Suddenly Rudy Giuliani interrupted to take on Ron Paul; you could see how he had taken charge of the stage and you could see how ... Romney and McCain were kind of visually kicking themselves because Giuliani had beaten them to the punch."

September will winnow those lacking "money, motivation and traction," Wallace says. Likely to be counted among them will be Duncan Hunter, Sam Brownback, Tom Tancredo and Ron Paul.

"September is a month that has a way of beginning and ending a lot of political careers," reminds Cal-Berkeley's Schnur. "With the voters now up and about and paying attention, a lot rides on (Wednesday's) debate."

Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at

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