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 for Romney, 21.4 for Giuliani. Will the results in those states impress voters in California, where Giuliani averages 28.3, Thompson has 18.3, and Romney has 14.7? If so, Romney is going to be the nominee.

What about Thompson, the buzz candidate? Here’s what bellwether conservative columnist George Will wrote about him recently: “Fred Thompson’s plunge into the presidential pool—more belly-flop than swan dive—was the strangest product launch since that of New Coke in 1985.” After noting that Thompson couldn’t answer conservative talk show host Sean Hannity’s softball question about the distinction between other Republican candidates’ positions and his own (“Well, to tell you the truth, I haven’t spent a whole lot of time going into the details of their positions”), Will went on to say, concerning Thompson’s support of government regulation of political speech, that he’s also “unfamiliar with the details of his own positions.” Of more immediate concern is the belief that Thompson’s belated entrance into the race allowed Romney to court conservatives unimpeded. Thompson has endured turmoil on his staff, below-expectations fund-raising, and difficulties in building an on-the-ground organization in Iowa or New Hampshire. And yet, instead of collapsing in the polls, he’s taking points away from Giuliani, whose percentage of support has dropped from the mid-thirties into the upper twenties. Giuliani’s average in five September and October polls was 29.6 percent, with Thompson at 21.2, McCain at 13, and Romney at 11. Never underestimate the power of celebrity.

On the Democratic side, the pressing question is whether Rove was right about Clinton’s being unable to win. No one wants to start a race with a 43 percent unfavorable rating (which Clinton logged in a recent Quinnipiac University poll), but I don’t think it’s necessarily a deal killer. She may be able to wrap up the nomination early and avoid bruising primary battles, which could drive her unfavorables even higher. Already the conventional wisdom holds that if she wins Iowa, the race for the Democratic nomination is over. Her problems arise in the general election. Rove said on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show that Clinton is “fatally flawed.” He later explained to a reporter for Reuters: “There is no candidate on record, a front-runner for a party’s nomination, who has entered the primary season with negatives as high as she has. She’s not like a fresh and new character. She’s someone who has been essentially known to the American people for sixteen years. It’s going to be hard to change the perceptions that people have had.” But the Republican candidates have vulnerabilities—the consultants call them “glass jaws”—of their own: Giuliani’s liberal views (he’s pro-choice, pro—gun control, and pro—gay rights), Romney’s religion (in a 2006 Rasmussen poll, 43 percent of respondents, and 53 percent of evangelical Christians, said they would not vote for a Mormon), and Thompson’s reputation for laziness (as demonstrated by his unimpressive entrance into the race). Clinton’s negatives originate mostly from the opposition party. Giuliani’s and Romney’s negatives occur within their own party. That’s worse.

Vice-presidential selection doesn’t usually affect a presidential election, but it could this year. The leading Republicans could stand a little ticket balancing, so if Giuliani is the nominee, he could opt for a Sunbelt conservative (Fred Thompson?); Romney could pick a senator with ties to evangelicals (Sam Brownback?). Clinton probably faces a more difficult choice, because she risks alienating black voters if she doesn’t pick Obama and Hispanic voters if she doesn’t tap Bill Richardson. Still, she might be better off choosing retired general Wesley Clark, who could ease voters’ doubts about a woman’s serving as commander in chief. (Time’s Halperin said Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, or U.S. senator Evan Bayh, of Indiana, is a more likely selection.)

In the end, who would make the best president? This is what Halperin urged his Austin audience to place above all other considerations, but it has little to do with how we voters make decisions in real life. Most of our choices have been predetermined by our partisan sympathies, our personal interests and values, and our gut reactions to candidates. And sometimes when we think we know who’ll make the best president, we turn out to be wrong. I’m afraid I know this from personal experience.