Steve Chapman

Last summer, before the college football season began, sportswriters and coaches drew on all their experience, savvy and predictive powers to rate the best teams in the land. The top five schools in both the major polls all got to enjoy the honor, but not for long. Two months into the season, only one of them (Louisiana State) is still in the top five. Of the newcomers to the top five, Boston College and Oregon weren't even in the preseason top 25.

All this must come as a shock to those who thought the University of Southern California was invincible, and who never dreamed that their preseason No. 5, Michigan, would lose to Appalachian State. Even more than most years, the experts have been reminded of their fallibility. And the rest of us have discovered that all the predictions in the world don't mean a thing once it's time to play the game.

It's a lesson that applies equally well to presidential politics. If you listen to the latest soundings on any given day, you might wonder if you had just awakened from a coma that caused you to miss the 2008 election. Plenty of forecasters have been eager to declare a winner before the opening gun.

This is particularly true on the Democratic side, where Hillary Clinton is regularly advised to dispense with campaigning and start looking at fabric swatches for the Oval Office drapes. An Associated Press story the other day began, "Memo to the Democratic presidential candidates: You can still beat Hillary Rodham Clinton, but you better act fast."

Said a former aide to Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, "If this were a wedding, we'd be at the 'speak now or forever hold your peace' part." It took a barrage of attacks on Clinton in Tuesday's debate to force some commentators to consider delaying the coronation.

On the Republican side, experts have been busier writing off losers. Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul are given no chance, Fred Thompson is regarded as a flop, and the vultures are circling around John McCain. Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney must agree that they're the only two with a chance to win, since they spend a lot of time attacking each other.

A casual observer might be stunned to learn that no actual ballots have yet been cast. For that matter, most Americans are only starting to pay attention. By the time the voting starts, today's polls and predictions will have all the pertinence of today's weather forecast. In Iowa and New Hampshire, it should be noted, voters often amuse themselves by confounding expectations.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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