Almost a year before the first primary ballots are cast in January 2008, the campaign for president got rolling in earnest this spring. There was news of Rudy Giuliani’s wife’s undisclosed first marriage, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama nipping at New York Sen. Hillary Clinton’s heels in the fundraising race, and John Edwards’ $400 haircut. All but ignored amid the sound and fury over Edwards’ locks and Obama’s bucks was a report from the Center for American Progress that outlined “a national strategy to cut poverty in half.”

Though it garnered few headlines, the poverty report by the Washington-based think tank forms part of a burgeoning effort to put lower-income people and urban areas closer to the campaign spotlight. Back in January, the U.S. Conference of Mayors sent all the presidential contenders its 10-point “Strong Cities, Strong Families, for a Strong America” plan, which sketched out an urban agenda covering crime, housing and healthcare. And in New York City, the Community Service Society joined Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ to host a series of forums with presidential candidates called Working Cities. Clinton and Edwards have already appeared, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is expected in June, and Obama could visit later in the summer.

“We want to make sure that we get the candidates on record on the issue of poverty, especially as it regards the working poor and the urban poor. Those of us who are relating to working poor and the labor movement are going to have to demand the candidates to take a position early on,” said Community Service Society President and CEO David Jones, who expects additional candidates, including some Republicans, to accept the invitation as well.

Urban issues have gotten short shrift in recent national races. In the four nationally televised debates in 2004, the candidates talked about cities only four times – and three of them were references to potential terrorist attacks. In the 2000 race, before Sept. 11 pushed domestic issues to the back burner, cities got even less attention. That reflected a long-term trend. “Urban issues were front and center in the national debate between the 1920s and the 1960s, and even the ’70s. But things that happened politically, economically and demographically changed the political equation,” says Peter Dreier, a political science professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “America is now a suburban country.” Indeed, America’s 100 largest cities contain only one-fifth of the nation’s population.

But in 2008, with at least two former mayors – Giuliani and former Cleveland mayor Rep. Dennis Kucinich – in the race (and perhaps a third if Mayor Bloomberg throws in his hat), will cities get their due? Analysts are skeptical. Political scientist and University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato says 2008 is shaping up as “yet another gigantic referendum on Bush and Iraq.” Bruce Berg, a Fordham University political science professor, says urban issues will only get airtime as they relate to larger themes like immigration, education, health care and homeland security.

In the three debates held so far this year, the 10 Republicans and eight Democrats currently in the race talked mostly about Iraq and al Qaeda. Domestic issues like abortion, immigration, and taxes took a back seat. During the South Carolina GOP debate on May 15, however, Giuliani pointed proudly to the fact that, “I, according to George Will, ran the most conservative government in the last 50 years in New York City.” At the same event, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney brought up “the inner cities of America” in a comment about education. Earlier this year, Romney talked about inner cities when discussing “faith-based” initiatives.

Besides obligatory references to Ronald Reagan’s pledge that America must be a “city on a hill” (courtesy of Massachusetts Bay colonist John Winthrop, who first spoke the phrase) other Republican hopefuls have also given nods to cities, though sometimes in unexpected ways. Congressmen Duncan Hunter and Ron Paul both highlight their concerns about eminent domain – a key issue in urban development. Worried about the depopulation of the Great Plains, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback suggests a federal response modeled after the policies that cities used to reverse the out-migration seen in the ’70s, arguing that “tax incentives were put in place and it revitalized our nation’s urban cores.” Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who is weighing a presidential run, has shown particular interest in ways to combat diabetes, a disease striking many inner-city neighborhoods hard.

Unsurprisingly, Giuliani’s campaign material emphasizes his mayoral record on crime, welfare, and the budget. In a Giuliani ad titled “Leadership,” the former mayor speaks as a succession of phrases flash across the screen: “keep us safe … cut crime in half … cut taxes 23 times … cut welfare in half.” At the two debates, the former mayor has been quizzed on his record in City Hall, from his immigration policies to relations with black New Yorkers to the brouhaha with the Brooklyn Museum over a picture of the Virgin Mary. But like other GOP contenders, Giuliani is focused on security, not new urban policies. Asked if the former mayor sees a federal role in helping cities, a Giuliani campaign spokesperson said only that border security is an area where national policy affects urban life.

Democrats, who usually draw more urban votes, have displayed slightly more interest in federal policies that would have a specific bearing on cities and the poor. Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden wants federal funding for more police officers on city streets. Obama is advocating a “responsible fatherhood initiative,” expanding the Child Tax Credit, and cracking down on mortgage fraud. Mike Gravel, a former Alaska senator, has called for de-criminalizing minor drug offenses. Kucinich – who dubs poverty “a weapon of mass destruction” – wants to battle predatory lending.

Clinton’s domestic policy emphasizes middle-class issues, but calls for a higher minimum wage, fighting predatory lending and increasing access to child care. “Clinton has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the various programs that have been used to confront poverty,” says Jones of the senator’s appearance at CSS. He adds: “Edwards has done enormous amounts of work and you can see it.” Indeed, the 2004 vice presidential candidate has published a book on ending poverty and advocates a goal of doing so within 30 years. He has called for creating 1 million temporary jobs, issuing a million more housing vouchers, expanding the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s HOPE VI housing program and subsidizing bank accounts for working families.

“I’ve been impressed by the depth of at least their understanding of the issues,” Jones says of the sit-downs with Clinton and Edwards. “The question of whether that will translate into being a principal part of their platform remains to be seen.”

Political strategy and media agenda-setting will, of course, determine the answer to that question, and in those calculations cities might get a boost from the blurring of lines between the worries of urban America and everybody else. “Increasingly, suburbanites and urbanites care about the same things,” says Dreier. “There’s a lot more poverty in the suburbs. There’s growing recognition that poverty is not just an urban issue.”

Fred Siegel, a Cooper Union professor and biographer of Giuliani, agrees. “The division between urban affairs and national affairs is not as sharp as it might once have been, especially since welfare reform was introduced on a local level,” he says.

That blurring process, however, faces a significant obstacle: the historical anti-urban bias in U.S. politics that dates back to Thomas Jefferson, which casts rural America as the “heartland” and urban areas as centers of crime and corruption. “There’s been kind of a suspicion and dread” of cities, says historian Paul Boller, author of “Presidential Campaigns” and other books about races for the White House, “and I honestly think some of that continues.”

– Jarrett Murphy