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Inside Politics

So who's waiting in the wings for 2008's show?

By Thom Patterson


(CNN) -- For President Bush, it's the beginning of the end. The U.S. Constitution limits elected presidents to serving two four-year terms, so the victorious incumbent will take a bow in 2008.

So which Republicans might seek to lead the party ticket in four more years? Obvious overtures would be crass in political society, but a handful of names get regular mention by political observers. And some delegates who attended the Republican convention in New York said they could tell who might be flirting with the idea.

"When you tell people at a convention that you're from New Hampshire, they tend to hold on to your hand a little longer and look into your eyes a little deeper," said six-time Republican National Convention delegate Tom Rath. "But beyond that, there was no overt, 'Are you with me if I go?'"

Delegates wouldn't dare ask, Rath said. "We know how to do this... there's kind of an elegant dance, as they say."

Since the early 1950s, New Hampshire's primary has served as a barometer of how well potential candidates might do among the electorate -- and the fear is that backers might decide to withdraw financial support if a candidate seeking party nomination did not make a strong showing in that state.

Although vice presidents are often an obvious guess, Dick Cheney, who has a heart condition, isn't expected to ask voters to hand him a promotion.

Among the names mentioned as GOP nominee possibilities are Sens. Bill Frist, John McCain, Chuck Hagel, and George Allen; New York Gov. George Pataki; former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Many of this group met with influential delegates during the GOP convention in September. Frist met with Iowa delegates. Hagel, Pataki, Giuliani, Allen and McCain called on New Hampshire's representatives.

Crystal ball

Rath considers early speculation about presidential contenders "the epitome of stargazing," and tried to minimize the significance of "the dance."

"We're a battleground state," Rath said of New Hampshire. "And as such, we have a lot of very high-profile visits from folks who would be on anybody's list. And in that regard [those] people came and kind of pumped up the delegation and told them how important it was."

McCain sought his party's nomination in 2000. And during this year's Republican convention he drew quite an audience of Granite State delegates. "We had some people in that delegation who were very close to -- and great fans of -- Senator McCain," Rath said. "And they were front and center when he came, and I think that that was totally appropriate after his run four years ago."

GOP strategist Scott Reed, campaign manager for Sen. Bob Dole's 1996 presidential run, said McCain was someone to watch in 2008.

"The front-runner in the Republican party will be John McCain, based on his performance at the convention, support for Bush and his polling numbers both nationally and in the early primary states," Reed said. "His favorable rating [in national voter surveys] is at about 70 percent among Republicans, Democrats and independents, which is kind of unique."

Shall we dance?

When you ask the candidates, their moves are classic two-steps -- side steps really. Nothing's "ruled in or out" and they're focusing on current jobs.

A spokeswoman in McCain's office said his only focus this year was securing a fourth term in the Senate. And he snagged a solid win on November 2 with more than 75 percent of Arizonans supporting him.

Romney made several visits to New Hampshire earlier in the year.

"Watch the governor of Massachusetts, very attractive," Reed said. "He's getting very high marks for governing and he's an overnight top-tier candidate in the neighboring state of New Hampshire. Romney is someone to watch, he's gotten way out on the gay marriage issue -- being against it --which helps him with social conservatives, which is the base of the Republican Party."

But Shawn Feddeman, a spokeswoman for Romney, said her boss' focus was "helping President Bush get elected ... and beyond that he anticipates running for re-election in 2006."

Giuliani's popularity after his response to the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York fueled speculation that he might run in 2008. But Reed said the former New York mayor should take a more roundabout route toward the nomination.

"I think he'll get smart and realize that the path to the nomination is to take on [New York Sen.] Hillary [Rodham Clinton] and defeat her in '06," Reed said.

Giuliani's office said he's not thinking about running for president. "He's not ruling anything in, he's not ruling anything out," said spokeswoman Sunny Mindel. "As Mayor Giuliani says all the time ... future will take care of itself."

Lisa Stoll, a spokeswoman for Pataki, said the New York governor has left himself with several options. "He's not ruling out running against Senator Clinton in 2006," she said. And "he has not ruled out running for re-election -- his term expires in 2006."

Allen is focused on serving Virginia, but also hasn't decided for or against a shot at the White House, spokesman John Reid said. The senator is "flattered that a number of people have approached him or mentioned to him that he would be a great candidate one day, down the line."

As for Hagel, spokesman Mike Buttry, said. "Senator Hagel will make decisions at the appropriate time."

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