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It’s now-or-never time for our endorsement decisions

ON TUESDAY, New Hampshire votes. On Wednesday, presidential candidates will descend on South Carolina in such numbers as we’ve never seen, and stay for the duration — the Republicans until the 19th of this month, the Democrats through the 26th.

Time for us to get busy on The State’s editorial board. Not that we’ve been slacking off, but our pace starting this week is likely to make the past year look like a nice, long nap.

Watch for more columns than usual from me on this page or the facing one. And between columns, keep an eye on my blog (address is below). But the main work of the next two weeks will be interviewing the remaining viable candidates and writing our endorsements. Our plan, from which we will deviate only under the most extreme circumstances, is to endorse in the GOP primary a week from today, Jan. 13, and to state our choice in the Democratic contest Jan. 20.

But, asked regular gadfly Doug Ross on my blog last week, our endorsements have “already been written,” right? And as another writer, who goes by the pseudonym “weldon VII,” asked, “Why would Romney waste his time coming to see you, Brad?”

Such are the pitfalls of blogging. Some folks mistake my passing observations for final conclusions and (an even greater mistake) my opinions for those of the whole editorial board.

Right now — since I have not once asked any of my colleagues whom they currently prefer in the two primaries (I want that discussion to happen after the last interview — it makes for a more intense debate, but a much better-informed one), and since they haven’t hinted aloud or in print, I don’t know how near or far we are from our eventual consensus. (Ask me next week this time.)

As for “weldon’s” comment — well, let’s be frank: He’s thinking of my oft-stated respect for John McCain. You don’t have to read the blog to know about that; it’s been stated here often enough.

But I’ll say two things about that: First, I had good things to say about Mike Huckabee, too, after I met him for the first time on Sept. 20. He made a stronger impression than expected; he’s made a similar impression on a lot of other people since then.

Secondly, I was a big admirer of Sen. McCain back in 2000, too — but we ended up endorsing George W. Bush.

Let me tell you about that — and also answer another question Doug asked: Who breaks a tie on the editorial board?

It generally doesn’t come to a tie, because we work really hard for a consensus. Some of us change our minds during the discussion, while others concede to a second choice, seeing that their first isn’t going to carry the day. It’s complicated.

I can think of only two times when we had a “tie” to break, and one of them was in February 2000. Gov. Bush came in at 8 a.m. on the Wednesday before our endorsement; Sen. McCain joined us Thursday afternoon. (Alan Keyes had been in the previous week.) The moment Sen. McCain left, we began our final discussion.

The previous weekend, I had written and e-mailed to my boss, the publisher, a 4,000-word memo explaining why I believed we should endorse Sen. McCain. I did so knowing that he (this was two publishers ago, I should add) was just as firmly for Gov. Bush. But he was leaving the question open until after the interviews.

We went into those meetings with most of the group leaning toward McCain (based on comments volunteered to me). It’s amazing what a good meeting can do for a candidate, or what a bad one can do to a candidate. That Wednesday, George W. Bush had the most “on” hour of his life. I have never seen the man, before or since, present himself so well, or so articulately. (Maybe it was the time of day; maybe it was the two cups of coffee we watched him drink; most likely it was his firm knowledge that this was a make-or-break moment.)

John McCain was in a funk on Thursday. I’ve never seen him so “off” as he was that day. In a downcast voice, he spoke of a young boy who’d come up to him that day and told him the senator had been his hero, but not any more, after what a caller had told the boy over the phone. (Neither he nor we fully appreciated yet the devastating impact that smear campaign would have.)

The publisher had come prepared for our internal debate. He had a six-inch stack of documents he had gathered to support his position. When he was done, and I was done, we went around the table. Two people had changed their minds. It was a tie. And in a tie in which the publisher is on one side and the editorial page editor on the other, the publisher’s side wins.

Do I make my decision solely on the basis of a single meeting? Of course not. But some of my colleagues don’t pay the kind of attention to these candidates that I do day after day; that’s not what they’re paid to do. They come in with relatively fresh perspectives.

And while it doesn’t happen often, I’ve been known to change my mind in these meetings. I’m wary of this, and reluctant to give it too much weight. But if I don’t give it some weight, what indeed is the point of the interview?

We’re working with the campaigns to firm up the appointments, but I’m hopeful that we’ll have spoken with Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson by the end of the day Thursday. Once those are out of the way, we hope to see Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — and John Edwards, if he’s still in it after Tuesday.

I don’t know exactly how it’s going to go, but I know this is going to be interesting.

For my blog, go to http://blogs.thestate.com/bradwarthensblog/.

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