GhostA former Vice President goes ice fishing and poses with a puny perch dangling from his line. A 68-year-old Senator dons athletic shorts and runs a 60-yd. dash in a San Francisco track meet. A man who once orbited the earth turns up at a cattle show and enters a contest to guess the weight of a black Simmental bull; first prize is a dozen vials of bull semen.

Such hijinks can mean only one thing: the quadrennial silly season has started again. Twenty-one months before the presidential election and a full year before the first caucus or primary, a drove of Democratic hopefuls are formally declaring their candidacies. A few, heaven help the electorate, have been campaigning unofficially for more than a year.

— Walter Isaacson, Time, Feb. 23, 1983

We’re only a month off from the analogous date in the 2008 presidential campaign; and with the announcement of presidential exploratory committees being formed by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama last week, coming mere weeks after the announcement of the formation of exploratory committees by John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, my landscaper, my pharmacist and my dog, no one can seriously deny that this quadrennial silly season – which has all the portents of being the silliest of this or any prior age — is already under way.

Although it is generally against my better judgment to add my voice to the cacophony of prognosticators and political psychoanalysts who have already begun to handicap this race – hey, what the heck, this is the Internet, and he who hesitates in the Land of No Restraint at this point is surely napping under granite and clay. Thus, I offer the following few useless observations of my own – some of them, amplifications of my New Year’s Eve post — on the beginning of our present silly season:

· If you saw John McCain on Meet the Press this past Sunday, defending what has become, in the words of Democratic candidate John Edwards, the “McCain Doctrine” – a last-ditch escalation of American troop presence in Iraq – you saw a man who has had premonitions of his own defeat in 2008. Far from appearing as the wide-awake maverick that he was during the 2000 campaign, McCain looked like he was just having no fun at all. He has, in an effort to win over the Republican establishment that he has frequently bucked away from during his last 25 years of service, sealed himself within box after politically-claustrophobic box – lending full support to the sinking ship of the Bush administration, reaching out to evangelical conservatives who announce on their own airwaves that they can never, ever, EVER stomach voting for him for president — and, in the process, he is losing his national base, the independent voter, and probably all of his maverick instincts. Striving to be the establishment candidate has sucked all the verve out of McCain; and by February of next year, we will either see McCain’s voice reduced to a whispering monotone, or we will see some public evidence of that famous McCain temper. Either way, it will not be pretty.

· McCain’s main challenger, at least today, is Rudolph Giuliani, and there is no doubt that he is a formidable one. Evangelicals and the folks on the far right refuse to say they won’t vote for Giuliani – at least not yet. Giuliani, of course, hasn’t been in McCain’s unenviable and punishable position of being the Man Who Has Most Often Collaborated with the Enemy [i.e., the Secular Humanist Democrats]. Although, in the eyes of such Republican regulars, Giuliani has a checkered personal past and a history of supporting socially liberal policies, his credibility as a candidate is that his resume is assumed to be a winning argument in the war on terror; the right wing of the party, today, may be banking on the idea that Giuliani will reward its support of his candidacy by not participating in the Culture War. It’s kind of a You Scratch My Back and I Won’t Scratch Their Backs construct. And yet … Giuliani appears on the Today show this morning looking like a man who may not be sure yet how to become president. As he lends tepid support to President Bush’s State of the Union address, his eyes open unnaturally wide, like a little boy riding on the handlebars of his brother’s speeding bicycle. (On Giuliani’s eyes, see also this Gawker post.)  With the launch of the silly season, Giuliani realizes that in order to maintain his anti-terror credentials during a long campaign, he is going to have come up with a riff that sounds tough without sounding stupid to a public that has basically rejected President Bush’s brand of uncrenulated (smooth-brained) toughness. He hasn’t found the riff yet. His appearance this morning suggests to me, if I may be so bold, that he is still unsure about whether he has the stomach to tackle that issue while also trying to preserve some personal dignity within a process that seems designed to make him look like a man of undisciplined appetites, like the Paris Hilton of Presidential Politics. With the recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showing that Hillary Clinton and Rudy are currently the front-runners in this race, one hastens to recall that Giuliani once backed out of a closely-contended race against Hillary, for New York’s open Senate seat in 2000 (yes, he said it was because of cancer, but…). That’s a crucial fact – it either means that the old hairs are standing up on the back of his neck again, or, because it is now a matter of regret that he didn’t do it last time, he has to do it this time.

· If McCain’s potential candidacy is now smelling suspiciously like last month’s casserole at the back of the fridge, and Giuliani ultimately loses control of the push-me-pull-me forces that currently guide his potential candidacy, where will the Republicans go? The venerable Yepsen says the vague and flip-flopping Mr. Mitt Romney is the best organized candidate in Iowa – but we all know what organization gets you if it isn’t paired with a soul to match – no love in the gym come caucus-time. Ask Mr. Dick Gephardt. Iowa will point to one or two front-runners, and if I’m an Iowan squinting at the stage, I think I may only be able to see one actual president up there – and it looks like it could be Newt Gingrich. He’s tanned, rested and ready, he has no affiliation with the repudiated Bushies, and, dad-gummit, he’s actually sounding more and more like a statesman these days. And if you don’t believe me on this, perhaps you’ll believe this guy, David Brooks of the New York Times, who says on The Chris Matthews Show: “Newt Gingrich is going to come in a close second in one of the first three Republican primaries. Be on the cover of Time and Newsweek. He will have his moment. And he will be the alternative to whoever the real nominee is …”

· In those shots of the Senate Democrats during President Bush’s State of the Union address last night, we saw Hillary Clinton sitting near Barack Obama. What do you say, if you’re Senator Obama, to the woman whose front-running status you are poised to steal? What do you say, if you’re Senator Clinton, to the guy who’s sneezed all over your playbook?

· Barack Obama, also appearing on Today this morning to talk about the SOU, by contrast looks like a guy who is determined to dive into the heat of battle. Determined, with a capital D, and serious as all get-out. Obama’s biggest enemy today, it seems to me, is the natural process of anaerobic decay. Obama’s freshness on the political scene is, like fresh produce, particularly sensitive to exposure to oxygen and sunlight and a two-year long 24-hour news cycle; and as the silly season matures, he runs a serious of risk of growing rancid and emitting noxious gases. How often can you fall back on your best stuff? Fastball pitchers will tell you, not often enough. And for all the charisma that he’s accused of marshalling to date, one suspects that inside the toothsome, shirtless Alpha male, jogging through the Hawaiian surf and projecting all that patented hope and audacity, there is a straw-hatted, furcoat-wearing, pennant-waving Harvard wonk in him just screaming to get out and strut his stuff for the public at large. If it does, which seems inevitable, a debate between Obama and Senator Mrs. Rodham Clinton will surely be as soporific as a John Kerry one-man show. The gods of music and rhetoric are probably grateful, at this point, that John Edwards is still in this race. And here’s the point – Edwards might start looking like the only living thing on the moonscape if “being front-runners” permits Obama and Clinton to set the pace of the campaign. In other words, the Democrats might not care too much about the unspoken peril of anointing a woman or a black man as their standard-bearer, but if they have learned anything from 2004 (or 1988, or 1972, or 1956) it is that they sure as hell might want to find someone who has a pulse. As a credible off-pace, insurgent candidate, Edwards is already scoring points in Iowa. Edwards passes the “I’d have a beer at the backyard barbecue with that guy” test of presidential politics; I’m not sure that either Clinton or Obama do.

· The most interesting entry of the week was that of Governor Bill Richardson, a man whose resume reads like a fictional super-dude from a Tom Clancy or Ian Fleming potboiler. Through no fault of his own, however, he’s also a Westerner – and while we can sit back and admire Cowboys for their jaundiced independence on the silver screen, we don’t really get them. That’s part of their appeal as icons, but we rarely think of electing icons. We the People, after almost 250 years of this institutional engine of ours chugging along, still do not feel altogether comfortable sitting in the same drawing room with the Westerner. A West-Coaster, maybe, but a Westerner? Maybe it’s the furry pants or the spurs. In Richardson’s case, he is also, paradoxically, potentially the latest sufferer of the usually fatal Bruce Babbitt Syndrome – he’s a quirky, jowly Western governor whose relationship with his home constituents is built, at least in part, on his reputation for enjoying a good yuk around the campfire, but whose attempts to translate that into a national stage presence may be fundamentally challenged by a lack of national political gravitas. Sure, he’s served in Washington, but most prominently as a backroom guy, under the protective cover of President Clinton’s administration, not as a free agent roaming the Sunday shows. He is, most significantly, a made-to-order veep pick – and although I believe him when he says he’s got a great job as governor of New Mexico and wouldn’t want to be vice-president … I guess I believed John Edwards when he said much the same in 2004, too, before he spent 4 months running around the country asking people to ELECT HIM as vice-president. My second choice for most-likely-to-be-offered-the-spot, handicapping that notoriously unstable process from the comfort of my naïve easy chair on a Wednesday in January of ‘07: Jim Webb of Virginia.

Keep the faith, friendly readers. Keep the faith.