It has become fashionable to refer to the hurdles that presidential contenders must leap before any actual primary votes are cast as primaries of a different sort: There’s the “wealth primary” to measure fundraising capability; the “Beltway primary” to measure how party insiders are lining up; and now the “blogosphere primary” to measure where netroots activists are gravitating. But the most important pre-primary “primary” is still the one in which the contenders try to make themselves useful–by lending their star power and giving generously to candidates in tight races–during the election cycle prior to the presidential year.

If there’s a winner in the 2006 version of that contest, it’s Senator Barack Obama, who started the season swearing off presidential ambitions and ended it with a “well, maybe” flirtation that seemed to capture everyone’s imagination. The Illinois Democrat successfully made himself this year’s marquee attraction, showing up at rallies for all key Senate and House candidates and even for struggling contenders, like California gubernatorial hopeful Phil Angelides, who were unlikely to win but certain to remember the favor. If Obama’s just teasing us (or just selling his latest book) he’ll end up helping presumed frontrunner Hillary Clinton by drawing attention away from the crowd of other Democrats competing to be the “anti-Hillary.” If he’s serious, his popularity positions him as Clinton’s worst nightmare–aside from the unlikely prospect of a re-engaged Al Gore.

With Clinton focusing a respectable amount of her attention on a sure-bet re-election bid for her New York Senate seat, Obama’s most serious competition for the national spotlight came from Clinton’s stand-in, husband Bill, whose in-your-face retorts to Fox News interviewer Chris Wallace made him the unlikely “fighting Democrat” of the fall. Between them, the former President and Obama sucked the air out of the season for Senator John Kerry and his 2004 running mate, John Edwards, as well as for Senator Russ Feingold and Gen. Wesley Clark. Kerry closed the campaign sparring with Republicans who tried to suggest that the Vietnam vet was somehow insensitive to troops in Iraq. Edwards, who has been busy moving to the left, concentrated on building bases in the early primary state of South Carolina and the first caucus state of Iowa, where he campaigned even for state legislative candidates. Feingold kept an active schedule, particularly in Southern and Western states, and made a point of campaigning for candidates who shared his antiwar, pro-civil liberties positions. But neither could compete with Obama’s star power.

Nor could Clark: He cut a tough antiwar ad backing Senate candidate Ned Lamont of Connecticut, but Obama, who once campaigned for Lamont’s opponent, incumbent Senator Joe Lieberman, grabbed headlines with a late October announcement that “Ned Lamont and I share a commitment to bringing our troops home safely from Iraq.” No matter the election result, helping Lamont was a smart move, especially now that the Democrat who hustled hardest for netroots support, moderate former Virginia Governor Mark Warner, has taken himself out of the running.

On the Republican side, Virginia Senator George Allen began 2006 as a favorite of party insiders desperate for a “new face” to put on the Bush Administration’s foreign and domestic policies. More trusted by right-wingers than Arizona Senator John McCain or former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Allen was supposed to run a re-election campaign that would be a blueprint for his 2008 race. Instead, after he got caught spewing a racial epithet, his campaign turned into a train wreck. Rather than coasting to re-election while aiding other Republicans, Allen spent the fall fighting for his political life. Count him out as a 2008 contender.

That’s good news for McCain, who jetted into every key state and seemed to cut more personal testimonial TV ads for GOP candidates than the President–or other prominent Republicans. Party stalwarts may not like McCain, but they recognized this fall that they need his veneer of independence. Giuliani made the rounds as well, but he lacked McCain’s energy and focus.

Indeed, if there was a competitor with McCain for the MVR–Most Valuable Republican–title, it was outgoing Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who began the last week before the election barnstorming through rural Iowa while hiring key staffers from outgoing Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Bush isn’t running for the GOP nomination but hasn’t shot down speculation from the Romney camp about a Mitt-and-Jeb ticket. In a party that knows it must break with George W. Bush, but doesn’t want to stray too far, Romney is practicing smart politics.

At the end of the first pre-primary “primary,” however, neither Romney nor McCain, nor any of the other Democrats, had played the politics of 2006–and, by extension, the politics of 2008–as smart as Obama.