The 2008 race is morphing so fast that four possible candidates have already dropped out. Then there's the X factor - the unprecedented front-loading of primaries and caucuses that will make it more difficult than ever for a dark horse to come out of nowhere and take the nomination.
This election is going to be "the mother of them all," Democratic adviser James Carville declared at a political conference last week. He marvels at the array of "larger than life people" definitely or possibly mounting campaigns - John McCain, Rudolph Giuliani, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, Al Gore, and "to make it interesting," Newt Gingrich. These are people who "change the temperature of the room" when they walk in, Mr. Carville says.
It may be a sign of the vulnerabilities of both putative front-runners - Senators McCain (R) and Clinton (D) - that so many other people are talking about running, but in the end, many political oddsmakers are still betting that today's front-runners end up facing off in November 2008. And the size of the field is likely to shrink fast.
This is good news, at least, for most news organizations, which don't have the staff to follow dozens of Oval Office wannabes all over Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, not to mention Michigan, Florida, and California, which are taking steps to hold early primaries, too.
"A big field will become a little field very quickly," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "I suspect a lot of the people talking of running now or even announcing exploratory committees will flunk the invisible primary."
He refers to the early fundraising, polls, and media attention that indicate whether a candidate is viable.
For now, it's the Democratic world that's buzzing, as the charismatic Senator Obama starts making moves toward a possible run; he delivers his first speech in New Hampshire next Sunday. Obama's maneuvering may have quickened the pace of other hopefuls' moves, though they deny it.
Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa has become the first fully announced Democratic candidate. Over the weekend Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana announced an exploratory committee. Team Hillary has whispered to the media that the senator is lining up support among top Democrats in New York for an increasingly likely run.
For a candidate like Governor Vilsack, who is not widely known nationally, the early rollout has provided him some time in the spotlight that will become increasingly difficult to commandeer.
His next task is to raise enough money to mount at least a minimal campaign, in the hopes that he catches fire as an outsider alternative to the top-billed senators he faces. As a governor, with roots in both Pennsylvania and Iowa and a life story that stresses overcoming adversity, he can tout executive experience that has made other governors successful presidential candidates. But even he acknowledges that he is a long shot.
"As a sheer matter of math, the more candidates, the lower the odds," says William Mayer, a political scientist at Northeastern University in Boston. "For long shots, the question is, can you get a bare minimum amount of attention to break through to the public consciousness."
Just how much money a candidate needs to raise in the first quarter of 2007 is open to debate, but a common benchmark is $30 million. Obama would probably be able to hit that mark; Clinton would have little trouble raising several times that; former Vice President Gore also still has his network. Beyond those three, access to big money is dubious; there's a lot out there, but it's not infinite.
Top advisers are also limited in supply, and will soon be married up to one candidate or another, if they aren't already.
The possible expansion of the early primary and caucus calendar will also favor those with big war chests. If Vilsack stays in the race until the Iowa caucuses, his presence as a native son could diminish the importance of that race, which would add even more clout to the New Hampshire primaries. And even though New Hampshire Democrats are upset that the national party has added early nominating contests in Nevada and South Carolina, New Hampshire's key role remains in place. The same will hold true if Michigan, California, and Florida move up their primaries to just after New Hampshire's.
Assuming that New Hampshire maintains its status as the first primary state, then the additional front-loading could serve to enhance New Hampshire's clout.
"If you are anybody but Hillary, your only chance of breaking out of the pack is in New Hampshire," says Mr. Mayer. "You can't say, 'It's OK if I come in fifth in New Hampshire; I'll emerge by doing well in California.' "
So the race is on to see who becomes Clinton's top challenger. For now, the excitement is around Obama. If he runs and does not stumble, there may not be enough political oxygen left for any of the other Democrats running or thinking of running or being urged to run.
| Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor