Obama Explores; Hillary Reacts The 2008 presidential contest revved up this week: Illinois Sen. Barack Obama filed papers to form a presidential exploratory committee. And presumed candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) launched a media offensive to discuss her views on Iraq.

Obama Explores; Hillary Reacts

He's fresh, he's the future, he's a dream candidate. For how long? hide caption

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Sens. Trent Lott and Harry Reid both served as majority leader, minority leader, majority whip and minority whip. hide caption

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Thirty-six years ago today, Sen. George McGovern (D-SD) becomes the first official 1972 presidential candidate. hide caption

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It's been a dizzying couple of days, prompted by an acceleration of the 2008 presidential contest — and it's only 360-some odd days before the Iowa caucuses. (Mark the date: Jan. 14, 2008.)

On Tuesday, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama filed papers to establish a presidential exploratory committee, with an official announcement to come on Feb. 10 (more on Obama below). The following day, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), an undeclared-but-likely-to-declare candidate, made herself available everywhere – NPR's Morning Edition, NBC's Today show, CBS' Early Show, a midday press conference at the Capitol, a CVS store in Gaithersburg (OK, I made that one up). She discussed her recent trip to Iraq, her displeasure with the Bush administration's handling of the war, her lack of confidence in the Maliki government in Baghdad, and her call for capping the number of U.S. troops in Iraq.

Clinton may or may not have purposely decided to launch her offensive the day after Obama's front-page-inducing announcement. But it wasn't just Obama, or former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC), or any other Democratic candidate she was focusing on. In fact, her real target may very well have been that senator who voted to authorize the war in 2002, and who for a long time thereafter called for more troops to be sent to the region: Hillary Clinton. Her past hawkishness, more than any intra-party foe, may be her biggest hurdle as she tries to win over anti-war Democratic voters.

There was a sprinkling of GOP news as well. Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, a fierce illegal immigration foe, announced his own exploratory committee. That followed a similar announcement the week before by Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican who is considering a presidential bid, widened his break with the Bush administration: He co-sponsored a nonbinding resolution that would, in effect, be a vote of no-confidence for the Bush war policy. And Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback officially declares his candidacy this Saturday. With nominal Republican front-runners John McCain, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani all viewed with some suspicion from movement conservatives (omit the word "some" regarding Giuliani), Brownback is a true believer who could very well become a factor.

But the headlines of the week belonged to Obama. And so did the questions.

Q: Do you think Barack Obama's popularity can hold up for two years? – Stanley Stern, Prairie Village, Kans.

A: Well, he can't possibly stay as popular as he is now. For the moment, Obama is a political phenomenon, a can't-miss candidate who, if you buy the hype, represents the hopes and aspirations of millions. And he may. But there is no way he – or anyone – can sustain such expectations. For all the "dream" candidates who decide to run for president, the dream inevitably gives way to a harsh reality. Media scrutiny has a way of bringing candidates back to earth. We've seen it time and time again, be it Ted Kennedy, Gary Hart or Ross Perot (though in fairness, Perot was never really from Earth to begin with.)

Q: It seems that with all the hoopla surrounding Obama's formation of a presidential exploratory committee, his running for the nomination is a done deal. Have there been any notable figures who formed exploratory committees and then failed to run for their party's nomination? – Rory Wohl, Cleveland, Ohio

A: There's no better example than Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN). Last Dec. 3, he announced an exploratory committee. Thirteen days later, he decided against making a run. Part of the problem, and we've said this before, is that many Democrats had hoped to position themselves as the alternative to Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), considered the party's front-runner. But when Obama got into the mix, others – presumably Bayh among them – may have decided there wasn't enough room for more than one alternative.

Q: Barack Obama was born in 1961 in Honolulu. Hawaii had been a state less than two years. If Obama had been born before Hawaii became a state, would he still qualify for president? One precedent I can think of was Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential nominee. He was born in 1909, and Arizona did not become a state until 1912. Was that an issue in the '64 campaign? – Mike Dowling, West Palm Beach, Fla.

A: It would not have mattered, and it was not an issue in Goldwater's presidential bid. You should also know that eight of the first nine presidents – George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison – all were born in places that had not yet become states. All, in fact, were born British subjects.

And, lest we forget, John McCain was born – to American parents – in the Panama Canal Zone.

Q: Your discussion in the Nov. 29 column about Sen. Joe Lieberman and his party affiliation set me thinking. He could fit in either party, and would hold the balance of power in either. But there are more Senate Republicans up for election in 2008 than Democrats. So Lieberman, if he switched to the GOP, would be going out on a limb and sawing it off. I say he stays. And here's my question: Has there ever been an instance of a senator who shifted parties more than once? If so, how did his original party treat the double-switcher? – Robert Waltz, St. Paul, Minn.

A: The most recent one who comes to mind is Bob Smith of New Hampshire. A very conservative Republican, his bid for the 2000 presidential nod was going nowhere; in July of 1999, he decided to leave the GOP and seek the nomination of the U.S. Taxpayers Party. Then, a month later, he decided that he would stay in the race for president, but as an independent.

On Oct. 24, 1999, Sen. John Chafee (R-RI), the chair of the Senate Environment Committee, died. In an amazing coincidence, Smith – next in line in seniority on the committee – suddenly recanted his departure from the Republican Party. He returned to the fold, dropped his independent presidential bid, and conveniently claimed the chairmanship of the committee. But Republicans in New Hampshire never fully forgave him for the party switch. And with polls showing Smith a likely loser to Democratic nominee Jeanne Shaheen, he was unseated in the 2002 GOP primary by Rep. John Sununu.

Another Republican who paid the price for switching back and forth was Sen. Robert La Follette Jr. of Wisconsin. Elected to succeed his legendary, deceased father in 1925, he won re-election as a Progressive in 1934 and 1940. He announced his return to the GOP in March of 1946. But it was too late: He lost the Republican primary that year to a fellow named Joseph McCarthy.

Oregon's Wayne Morse, on the other hand, did just fine. He went from Republican (1945-52) to Independent (1952-54) to Democrat (1954-68).

Q: You wrote in your Dec. 20 column that the last time a governor of one party filled a Senate vacancy with someone of another party was in 1960, when Oregon Gov. Mark Hatfield (R) appointed a Democrat. Not so. Sen. Phil Hart (D-MI) died on Dec. 26, 1976. Michigan's Republican governor, William Milliken, appointed Sen.-elect Donald Riegle, a Democrat, on Dec. 30 to fill the vacancy for the term ending 1/3/77. – Ray Graves, Detroit, Mich.

A: You are correct, though the only effect of Milliken's action was to get Riegle into the Senate four days early; as you point out, Riegle had already been elected in November of 1976 to succeed Hart, who was retiring that year. Besides, the Senate was not in session at the time between Hart's death and the incoming new Congress. The difference with the Hatfield example is that the person he appointed, Democrat Hall Lusk, served in the Senate for eight months.

Q: Last week's column mentioned that House Majority Leader John McCormack (D-MA) was elected speaker on Jan. 10, 1962. His predecessor as speaker, Sam Rayburn of Texas, died in November of 1961. Was there a period of time when the position remained vacant? Had the House adjourned in the interim? – Courtenay Hall, Ballston Spa, N.Y.

A: Correct on both counts. As majority leader, McCormack was the all-but-certain successor to Rayburn – though pockets of opposition to him had mounted because of his religion. Like President John F. Kennedy and Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, McCormack was a Roman Catholic. Some in Congress, as well as a few Baptist groups, felt that an alternative candidate was needed. But McCormack sailed through without any difficulty.

Q: Since 1919, has any senator served as majority whip, majority leader, minority leader, AND minority whip – a presumably rare feat, which Mississippi Republican Trent Lott has accomplished? – Nicholas Ohh, London, England

A: Look no further than Harry Reid of Nevada, the current Senate majority leader. Reid was also minority whip (January 2001-June 2001), majority whip (June 2001-January 2003), minority whip again (January 2003-January 2005), and minority leader (January 2005-January 2007).

CASPER THE FRIENDLY STATE: I was flat out wrong in my Dec. 20 assertion that, with Wyoming Sen. Craig Thomas (R) having been diagnosed with leukemia, Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal could find himself naming a Democrat to the Senate seat. Not so, says Tim Stubson of Casper: "Wyoming law requires that in the event a U.S. Senate seat is vacated, the state central committee of the senator's party is to select three candidates and forward those names to the governor for a final appointment. It is highly unlikely (read: impossible) that the Wyoming Republican Party would suggest a Democrat as one of its three selections and that a Democrat would fill Sen. Thomas' seat." (Thanks also to Nicholas Ohh of London, Carroll Ann Mears of NBC News in Washington, D.C., and David N. of New York City.)

William Chou of Albany, Calif., adds that Arizona, Hawaii and Alaska "also have it written in their constitutions that the governor shall appoint someone of the same party, while Utah (as well as Wyoming) has the state party of the former incumbent decide on a list. Also, Oregon and Oklahoma have special elections, and Massachusetts leaves the appointment to the state legislature." (And thanks also to David Iacobucci of Honolulu, Hawaii).

And there's one memorable Wyoming Senate succession story, courtesy Lynn Simons of Cheyenne: "In 1960, Wyoming elected Republican Keith Thomson to the Senate, but he died before taking office. Then-Gov. Joe Hickey (D) resigned from his position, succeeded by Secretary of State Jack Gage, who then appointed Hickey to the Senate. Two years later, Hickey ran for election to the post and was soundly defeated by Milward Simpson (father of former Sen. Alan Simpson), whom Hickey had defeated for governor in 1958."

And in response to my analysis of the Bill Jefferson congressional race in the Dec. 7 column, Jerry Skurnik of New York, N.Y., reminds me that the election system in Louisiana has changed. From now on, the state will hold its final election on the same day as the 49 other states.

'POLITICAL JUNKIE' ON THE AIR: This week's "Political Junkie" segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation focused on the Obama news, the decision by Sen. Wayne Allard (R-CO) to retire, and a conversation with Democratic strategist Lanny Davis about his call for a bipartisan presidential ticket. Hear the show online. Remember, the 20-minute "Junkie" segment appears every Wednesday on TOTN at 2:40 p.m. ET. Check local listings to see if your local NPR station carries TOTN.

Also: Don't miss this week's episode of "It's All Politics," the NPR political podcast, hosted by NPR's Ron Elving and me, which can be downloaded from our website. New edition of the podcast goes up every Thursday afternoon.

And tune in to NPR programs, beginning this Sunday, for a week-long special series entitled "Crossing the Divide." Each piece explores the possibilities of having constructive conversations among people with differing values, world views and perspectives.

Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please don't forget to include your city and state.

This Day in Political History: Sen. George McGovern (D-SD) becomes the first person to announce his candidacy for the 1972 presidential election (Jan. 18, 1971).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org