WASHINGTON — Sometimes, taking risks is less risky than avoiding them. The front-runners for the 2008 presidential nominations are being too careful for their own good.

Among the Republicans, Sen. John McCain has done everything possible to make himself safe for the party’s conservatives, abandoning the edgy, maverick personality that captured imaginations if not victory seven years ago. His reward: He’s lost the lead to Rudy Giuliani.

But the former New York City mayor has played down what makes him different from most in his party — his moderate to liberal views on social issues, his support for gun control — in order to appease those same conservatives.

For a while, Giuliani soared. But there’s evidence that his bubble is bursting. In the latest USA Today/Gallup Poll released earlier this week, he still led McCain, 31 percent to 22 percent. But Giuliani was down 13 percentage points since the beginning of the month.

Much of that support appears to have shifted to Fred Thompson, the former senator and actor included in the poll’s listings for the first time now that he’s said he might run. Thompson opened at an impressive 12 percent. His strength is a sign of the fragility of Giuliani’s lead — and an expression of doubt about the current Republican field.

Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, the great hope of so many Washington establishmentarians, came in at a miserable 3 percent. Romney’s sharp shifts rightward on abortion and gay rights have done him little good so far among conservatives and have hurt his credibility with everyone else.

Among Democrats, Hillary Rodham Clinton maintains a seemingly healthy advantage over Barack Obama, who has rocketed from nowhere into second place. The two senators lead former Vice President Al Gore (who is not even running) and former Sen. John Edwards, who gained sympathetic attention after he and his wife Elizabeth announced he would stay in the race despite the return of her cancer.

So far, Edwards is the Democrat who has taken risks by endorsing tax increases and arguing that a balanced budget is less of a priority for him than universal health coverage and energy development. He also gave an important, little-noticed speech a couple of weeks ago calling on the United States to take the lead in fighting global poverty.

As the underdog, Edwards has every reason to be bold. But the continuing interest in his candidacy and Gore’s strength as a would-be candidate suggest that Clinton and Obama may have more to worry about than they realize.

Clinton faces repeated sniping for seeming to be so carefully calculated and calibrated. Antiwar Democrats still hold it against her that she won’t apologize for voting in favor of the Iraq War resolution. In truth, as Michael Crowley argues in a revealing article in the current New Republic, Clinton has strong, deeply held, carefully thought-out views about America’s role in the world. I came away from the piece wanting her to be more open in saying what’s really on her mind. Doing so could force the debate on foreign policy that Democrats need.

Of all the candidates in either party, Obama has offered the clearest expression of the country’s desire for a new departure. But he needs to join Edwards in a specificity contest by standing up for policies and not just themes.

David Kusnet, who was the chief White House speechwriter in the early years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, sees Obama and Clinton as having opposite problems.

“A presidential campaign is a contest to define the historic moment and winning candidates are usually the ones who best do that,” says Kusnet, who on the whole likes this year’s Democratic field. “Obama has the best definition of the moment but doesn’t yet have the substance underneath it. Hillary brings a wealth of experience and ideas to the table but she needs to offer a definition of the moment.” Both have to get out of their current comfort zones.

That’s even truer of the Republicans. After the failures of the Bush presidency, the country is veering away from the kind of conservatism that has defined the Republican Party for a quarter-century. Because Giuliani, McCain and Romney are so unlike Bush, they are all well-positioned to offer something different. But each seems intent on kowtowing to orthodoxy and running a campaign better suited to the decade’s beginning than its end.

American voters want to shake things up. My hunch is that they will reward candidates who take chances. This time, being safe will mean being sorry.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at symbol)aol.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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