Decision '08 already forcing big decisions

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NEW YORK -- The campaign shouting for 2008 has begun, and that has TV news outlets scrambling to step up their coverage despite Election Day being a full 21 months away.

"We're almost a year earlier than normal," MSNBC vp programming Bill Wolff says. That's a marked change from previous years, when it would be about a year before the election that things would start to pop. Part of it is the accelerated primary schedule -- with Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina going to the polls in January, followed Feb. 5 by primaries in more than a dozen other states including possibly California and Florida.

"That means instead of having the month of February to go around the country and raise more money and build momentum, the candidates have to have all the money they have to have going in January," CNN political director Sam Feist says. "That puts tremendous pressure on the campaigns to be in the public eye (early)."

Indeed, January's announcement by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York that she would seek the Democratic nomination pushed Campaign '08 into overdrive. Other big names are expected to follow suit in the coming weeks, including Republican hopefuls John McCain and Rudolph Giuliani and Democratic heat-seeker Barack Obama, all of who are favorites among the all-news networks that have put presidential politics on the front burner, especially as the campaigning has dovetailed with the news stemming from the war in Iraq and U.S. policy therein. The Democratic takeover of both houses of Congress has added more fuel to the fire.

"We're figuring out how to cover this story every day starting now," NBC News political director Elizabeth Wilner says. "In the past, it's been, 'Let's ramp up in the off year sometime around Labor Day.' ... But now everybody's forming a battle plan for coverage much sooner."

For NBC News, that means there will be some massive coverage effort like the campaign embeds of the 2004 campaign, but Wilner says they're still formulating their plans. Fox News also has been putting significant effort into campaign coverage, with correspondent Carl Cameron on the trail of prospective candidates since well before November's midterm elections, says Thom Bird, Fox News' executive producer of news specials.

CNN's Feist estimates that the network's crews already have been in New Hampshire and Iowa more this time around than they ever have been during a normal campaign year. Next on the agenda is the presidential debates being sponsored by the news channels, beginning in April and May. Fox News is sponsoring one with the Republican candidates May 15 in South Carolina; CNN has one in April in New Hampshire.

"Look how early that is, and then two (other debates) pop up in April," Bird says. "You're doing full-blown coverage way, way in advance of the election."

Still to be determined is when the New Hampshire primary will be; Bird and Wilner are considering the possibility that it could be called for December, a month earlier than previous election cycles. That's causing coverage challenges as mundane but important as when the networks should book their hotel rooms.

"We're all getting calls from the hotels we've used in the past telling us that we have to book our hotel rooms or lose them," Wilner says. "I tell them, 'Please call your secretary of state' " and push for a definitive answer on the primary date, Wilner said.

"This is already turning out to be an exciting campaign," CNN's Feist says, "and we have almost 600 days to go."
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