One year from now, America will elect its next president, and its current one will leave behind an uncertain nation in uncertain times. The race to succeed George W. Bush started nearly a year ago, much earlier than the norm, as if the leading candidates sensed that it would take a long time for them to figure out what the country wants. This much is obvious: The country wants change. Almost everything else defies easy analysis. It is hard, for instance, to make a persuasive case that any of the Big Seven—Democrats Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama and Republicans Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson—should be the favorite to win.
This is partly because the 2008 election is fundamentally different from every one since Harry Truman left the White House. The reason is that it lacks an heir apparent. After Truman decided not to seek reelection in 1952, the nominees were World War II hero Dwight D. Eisenhower for the Republicans and Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson for the Democrats. This was the last time that the choice for president did not include either an incumbent president or vice president; subsequent races had Eisenhower in ’56; Richard Nixon, his vice president, in ’60; Lyndon Johnson in ’64; Hubert Humphrey, his vice president, in ’68; Nixon in ’72; Gerald Ford, his vice president and, after Watergate, the president, in ’76; Jimmy Carter in ’80; Ronald Reagan in ’84; George H. W. Bush, his vice president, in ’88; Bush in ’92; Bill Clinton in ’96; Al Gore, his vice president, in 2000; George W. Bush in 2004. The heir apparent didn’t always win, but the presence of a familiar figure gave American politics continuity—a place for starting the debate. From this perspective, history may view George W. Bush as the last president of the twentieth century, and the winner of the 2008 election will be regarded as the first president of the twenty-first. The absence of a candidate from a previous administration opens the door to policy ideas that have been nonstarters; one example in this race is universal health care.
Iraq, however, will be the defining issue. The Republicans embrace the surge and oppose timetables for withdrawal. The Democrats oppose the surge and have various plans for ending the war and bringing home large numbers of troops. Both sides are thus at the mercy of events. The Republicans are clearly at a disadvantage, because the public overwhelmingly disapproves of the president’s handling of the war (70 percent to 25 percent in a mid-September CBS News poll). But the Democrats are not without their own problems: a constituency that wants the war over tomorrow and doesn’t care about the consequences (that same CBS poll showed that 57 percent disapprove of the way “Democrats in Congress” are handling the war) and a potential constitutional showdown with the White House over who gets to determine war policy. If the Constitution means anything, the commander in chief ought to win. Yet the Republicans’ exposure is greater than the Democrats’, because the GOP is betting on a long shot: that the Iraqi factions can settle their differences in time to establish a functioning government.
But who will be the party’s nominee? Unlike the Democrats, who have a clear front-runner—Clinton—with an expanding lead, the R’s have not produced an obvious favorite. Back in 1999, as the primary season loomed, Karl Rove told me that there were several preprimaries that Bush had to win: the endorsement primary, the money primary, and the ideas primary. I heard ABC News’ former political director Mark Halperin, now an editor-at-large at Time magazine, speak in Austin recently, and he said something similar: that the contenders are engaging in a preprimary combat in status, fund-raising, polling, and buzz. McCain entered the election cycle as the presumed favorite, a status he squandered. Romney is winning the fund-raising category, Giuliani the polling category, and Thompson the buzz category. Halperin’s belief is that these circumstances will make it difficult for any of the four to break away from the pack. John B. Judis, of the New Republic, agrees. He did some rough estimates of which candidate might win which early primary, allotted the delegates accordingly, and came up with Giuliani leading with 459, Thompson second with 380, Romney third with 300, and McCain fourth with 131. “To convert his advantage into the nomination,” Judis wrote, “Giuliani, the front-runner, would have to win 800 of the remaining 1,190 delegates, which comes to two-thirds. Unless one of his main rivals drops out … that would be very difficult to do.” Judis speculated that the R’s may be headed for a brokered convention, which would be a public relations and electoral disaster.
What effect will the new primary schedule have? In case you’re a normal person and haven’t noticed, the usual order—Iowa caucuses, New Hampshire primary, South Carolina primary, and so on—has changed. Iowa and New Hampshire will still go first, but they’ll have to move up their voting to early January to secure their spots. Many of the most populous states (but not Texas) have also rescheduled their primaries, to give their voters a greater say in the nominating process. Michigan moves to January 15, Florida to January 29, and a whole host of delegate-rich states—California, Georgia, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, and Tennessee—plus a dozen smaller states move to February 5. The big question is whether the accelerated schedule will diminish the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire or enhance it. If Iowa and New Hampshire are diminished, Giuliani will be the beneficiary, as he has the greatest breadth of support. Romney is betting otherwise. His strategy is to win both and get the bounce he needs heading into the February 5 mother lode of delegates. The Real Clear Politics Web site averaged several polls conducted in Iowa in September and October and found him leading Giuliani there, 25.8 percent to 15.6 percent, with Thompson at 15.2. In New Hampshire, the average findings were closer: 25.2