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Worst Mistakes of Election 2008

By Tom Bevan

Over the course of the last year or more of campaigning, the candidates and their strategists have made thousands of decisions, both big and small, that have contributed to their current position in the race. With less than a month left until the caucuses, it's not too early to look back in hindsight and recognize which decisions didn't turn out so well. Here are the five biggest campaign mistakes to date:

5) Fred Thompson skipping the New Hampshire debate to appear on Jay Leno. At the time many folks thought Thompson did the right thing by staying out of the debate fray and launching his candidacy by reaching a broader audience. However, voters in the Granite State have punished Thompson with a vengeance, dropping him into a miserable sixth place at 3.2%. Even Ron Paul has twice the amount of support.

Given the way the rest of Fred's campaign has gone, the fact that New Hampshire is now effectively off the table creates a black hole in the calendar that is really problematic for his campaign. With more than three weeks between Iowa and South Carolina, Thompson now needs at least a strong 3rd place showing in Iowa just to have a chance at stay in the mix long enough to reach the Palmetto State, where he hopes he can jump start his bid for the nomination.

You could argue that with his Southern Fried style, Fred might not be polling all that much better in New Hampshire today even if he had attended that first debate, but in hindsight it sure looks like needlessly pissing off Granite State voters was the wrong way to go.

4) Mitt Romney deciding to give his big speech on faith this week. While his campaign has been arguing this back and forth for some time now, it seems clear he should have given this speech six months ago. Instead of getting the subject of his faith out of the way early in the year when fewer people were paying attention and moving on, Romney now looks reactive and flustered. Even worse, Romney's Mormonism is taking center stage in the media spotlight with less than a month to the caucus which not only deprives him of valuable time to draw meaningful distinctions with his opponents but puts him on the defensive in a faith related debate as voters choose between him and Mike Huckabee.

3) Clinton rejecting the advice offered in the leaked strategy memo back in early summer recommending she skip Iowa. Imagine how different the Democratic race would look today if Edwards and Obama were battling it out in Iowa while Hillary Clinton was working aggressively to strengthen her position in New Hampshire, flying above the fray running a national campaign.

Instead, she's bogged down in a war in Iowa, lobbing volley after volley at Barack Obama, undoing in a matter of days the softer image her campaign spent months carefully crafting. Worse still, by making a stand in Iowa she's put her status and credibility on the line sooner than she would have otherwise - and in a state that's not particularly well suited to her ideologically. A loss in Iowa will create an opening that the winner will seek to exploit five days later in New Hampshire (especially if it's Obama) to try and topple her from her front runner's perch.

2 & 1) Imagine where John McCain would be in the race today if he had run the kind of campaign he's currently running instead of the employing the "front runner strategy" that turned into such a disaster, and also if he had he handled the immigration issue more deftly?

McCain needn't have flip-flopped on immigration, abandoned his principles, or taken to demagoguing the issue - as some of his fellow competitors have - but simply come to the recognition of the need for credibility on border security first. Even if McCain had still supported comprehensive reform, he'd be better off today if he had just mustered the common sense and humility not to rub the Republican base's face in it by holding a press conference championing his bill at the side of Ted Kennedy.

Despite these two campaign-killing mistakes, McCain is still alive and kicking thanks to a fractured and flawed Republican field in which no candidate has yet sealed the deal. He's sneaked back into 2nd place nationally and is only 3 points out of second place in New Hampshire.

If McCain had run a mistake free campaign, he would most likely have become what he envisioned at the beginning: a mainstream conservative candidate that had wide appeal among social, fiscal, and national security Republican voters and also had the cross over appeal to win a general election, even in an unfavorable year for Republicans. It's much more of a longshot now than it was, but McCain still has a chance of being just that.

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

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