WORLD kicked off its coverage of 2008 presidential contenders in December 2006. Fast-forward four years to December 2010: Potential presidential aspirants were not announcing their intentions. In January, February, March, and April 2011, candidates were eyeing other candidates but not making official announcements. The race resembled a Tour de France peloton-the French word for the main group of bicyclists-in which riders save energy by "slipstreaming," riding just behind others in a way that cuts down wind resistance.
A presidential campaign is also like the Tour de France-which begins this year on July 1-in that it's run in stages: daily in France, longer segments in our political Tour d'America. We're now in the first stage, with early polls merely measuring name recognition, so reporters look hard at backgrounds and character issues. Subsequent stages focus on straw polls, debates, caucuses, and primaries.
One other bicycling comparison: Cyclists have to decide when to leave the peloton and try a breakaway. Too late and someone else may gain a big lead. Too soon and the winds may smack the racer and sap his energy. Four years ago breakaway attempts came early. This year, the first major GOP figure to attempt a breakaway was former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who turns 68 on June 17.
On May 11 Gingrich officially announced his candidacy and started peddling fast, with his typical boldness, by calling the House Republican budget plan "right-wing social engineering." He tried to break from the pack and also from his past, but the political winds smacked him hard and he was soon back in the peloton, as our illustration shows him. Let's take a closer look: