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by TED S. McGREGOR JR. & r & & r & The Balloonies & r & & r & Hard to believe it's only been five months since this madness started on Jan. 3 in Iowa. But now with Montana and South Dakota in the books, it's time to take a look at some of the highlights. So here are the Balloonies (as in, hot air -- get it?), our awards for excellence in political theater. This week, we'll look at the Republican winners; next week, we'll cover the Dems.

Best Sidekick

Mike Huckabee took this one in a runaway with Chuck Norris. You could see Chuck (and his foxy wife) just over Huck's shoulder every time he spoke. Huckabee's subliminal message: "If you think Dick Cheney scares the H-E-double-hockey-sticks out of the world, just imagine a Chuck Norris vice presidency."

Best Play for Youth

John McCain proved that he's hip to the groovy scene one day when he sang a song by some band of whippersnappers called the Beach Boys. The punchline? He ad-libbed his own hilarious lyrics: "Bomb, bomb, bomb / Bomb, bomb Iran." That'll cinch the youth vote for sure.

Best High-Concept Strategy

Use "9/11" at least twice in every sentence, don't actually stage a campaign in any states for the first month and then blame the media when you lose. Dang that Rudy Giuliani is clever! Political scientists will try to figure out what he was really up to for a generation or two.

Best Party Crasher

Ron Paul at any of the GOP debates where he was able to actually get past the bouncers. He had the gall to argue against war and for fiscal discipline. Didn't he get the talking points? Articulating the obvious just isn't on the GOP agenda in '08.

Best Special Effects

Mitt Romney for the use of such lifelike robots to stand in for his family -- amazing! The only way you could really tell was that they were just too perfect. And a special achievement award in makeup goes to whoever did his hair and tan.
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