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Gary Younge
It's tough at the top

Organisers of the CNN Democratic presidential debate placed the three "top-tier" candidates - Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards - front and centre on Sunday.

The logic was clear. All the polls indicate that it will be one of those three. No one really cares about the others, who are just going to slow the conversation down. Polls have a way of creating their own momentum. These are the ones we hear about and from, so these are the ones we talk about.

What Does Bill Richardson, the only Hispanic candidate, have to say about immigration? What does Chris Dodd or Dennis Kucinich plan to do about healthcare? Unless you were already interested you'll probably never know. The latest comprehensive polling has Kucinich on 1%, Dodd on 1% and Richardson on 2%.

But history has its own logic. Traditionally, being a frontrunner in the Democratic race this early on is a mixed blessing. True, you get lots of free publicity, attract donors and maybe create an aura of inevitability. But you also place a huge target on your back and find gravity yapping at your heels doing its best to pull you down.

In politics, as in society, Democratic voters love an underdog. Roughly this time in the same cycle in 1975, Jimmy Carter polled just 1%, while Bill Clinton was 2% in 1992. Late in 2003 John Kerry remortgaged his house to kick start his campaign, which looked like it had stalled completely.

Emerging from such tough odds also has some benefits. With less to lose they can speak their mind. And if they start coming through, their resurgence itself becomes part of their schtick - remember how Clinton became the comeback kid?

Given the volatility surrounding two of the main issues - security and the war - it is also possible that the national mood could shift dramatically as a result of events that have no connection to the electoral timetable. A terrorist attack or a dramatic deterioration in Iraq could shift the focus suddenly.

Moreover, while coverage of the 2008 presidential cycle has gone into overdrive, thanks to cable TV and the blogosphere, the American public is not yet paying attention. When they finally do, the frontrunners may be out of breath, leaving those who now lag the chance to blaze a trail.

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