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Three presidential hopefuls who understand sports and community.

By 5.4.07

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If you are already tired of presidential politics -- who's up, who's down, who's coming from behind, who's losing their lead -- do not fret. This Saturday the 133rd Kentucky Derby, the longest continuous running sports event in America, will for approximately two minutes be the only horse race that matters. For many, it will be a welcome diversion.

So we decided briefly to depart from questions about policy, strategy and fundraising and ask the 2008 GOP contenders some questions that really matter -- like what their favorite team is and what sport they played as kids. Several of the top GOP contenders took time out of what was a hectic week of travel and debating to share their own experiences and sports memories.

Unlike Hillary Clinton whose "lifelong" baseball allegiance mysteriously shifted to the Yankees in time for her first senatorial run, the GOP sports fans seems to be genuine followers of their home team. Tommy Thompson explains that his favorite team is the Green Bay Packers and Brett Favre his favorite player. Rudy Giuliani, not surprisingly, lists the Yankees as his favorite team and Derek Jeter as his favorite player. One of his rivals, Mitt Romney, chooses the Yankee's biggest rival, the Boston Red Sox, and David Ortiz.

When asked about their favorite sports memory, the candidates wax a bit poetic, driving home the sense of nostalgia many fans feel for those great moments in their lives as sports fans. Tommy Thompson, the son of a gas station and grocery store owner, grew up in Elroy, Wisconsin, and vividly recalls: "Every year, my Dad would load us into the car and we'd all drive from Elroy to Milwaukee, go to the State Fair and watch a Milwaukee Braves game. Then we'd turn around and drive home that same night. That was our family vacation every summer -- and it was the best day of the year."

Giuliani, a lifelong New Yorker, recalls the great Yankee moments as if they were yesterday and lists as his favorites: "Reggie Jackson's 3 homeruns in the 1977 World Series, Charlie Hayes' catch to win 1996 World Series, Roger Maris' 61st homerun, and watching Joe DiMaggio for the first time."

Mitt Romney, who of course actually ran a great sporting event, the 2002 Winter Olympics, chooses another great Olympic moment--"Mike Eruzione scoring the winning goal against the Russians in the 1980 Olympics"-- as his favorite.

But sports are not all glory and some sports heartbreaks are hard to forget. The worst for Thompson was the Braves departure from Milwaukee and for Romney, "the ball going between Buckner's legs." For Giuliani, "the latest Yankee loss" is always the one that hurts the most.

None of these potential presidents match the athletic prowess of football center Gerald Ford. Nevertheless, Giuliani and Thompson both say they played baseball as kids. Romney, with candor, confesses: "I wasn't a great athlete, and one of the great ironies of my life is that I ran the Olympics, the premier sporting event in the world. When I was younger, I played track and field and cross country in school. I also skied, and played basketball and baseball."

We did feel compelled to ask something a bit more serious, so we queried the candidates about what sports means to America and whether it is more than just fun and games.

Thompson revealed his small town roots, sharing that: "Sports provides a sense of community and shared experiences. It brings people together -- Republicans, Democrats and Independents. And, perhaps most of all, it gives parents something to share and pass down to their children and grandchildren -- the love of a team or a sport. In Wisconsin, for example, the most valuable thing a parent can give to their children is Green Bay Packers season tickets."

Romney, who can boast of leading a successful company and the Olympics before his term as Governor, focuses on what we might learn about human potential and leadership, saying: "You see great qualities of character and the human spirit in athletes when they're under the pressure of competition. You see the self-sacrifice of Curt Schilling, the confidence of Larry Bird, the enthusiasm of M.L. Carr, and the calm under fire of Tom Brady. They inspire us all."

Rudy Giuliani touched on themes that connect to his world view and personal philosophy, stating: "Sports attempts to create a level playing field -- in that way it's a meritocracy -- people succeed based on contributions. Also, sports in many ways have helped overcome bigotry." He continued by pointing out some lessons from sports that fans as well as politicians would be well advised to learn: "It helps us learn to deal with adversity and rebound after failure. And most importantly, it teaches us to play by the rules."

Those harping about the deficiencies in current crop of candidates might take some comfort from our sports timeout. Each of these candidates reveals a genuine love of his community, knows that fans and players alike must overcome adversity, and talks about individualism and family as central values. Not bad qualities in a sports fan or a President.

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