The presidential nominating process used to have a beginning, middle and end. In 2008, it will have only a beginning. And then it will probably end.
The process used to start with Iowa and New Hampshire, and in the last few cycles, South Carolina.
Then other states would hold contests in the weeks and months that followed, and a nominee would emerge.
Often, the nominee would be whoever did well early.
But the other candidates did have a chance to stop the early winner and come from behind in later contests.
Sometimes there were surprises.
In 1996, Pat Buchanan stunned the Republican establishment by beating Bob Dole in the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 20.
Buchanan earned the nickname "Pitchfork Pat" when he said: "They hear the shouts of the peasants from over the hill. All the knights and barons will be riding into the castle pulling up the drawbridge in a minute. All the peasants are coming with pitchforks. We're going to take this over the top."
But in those days, the establishment had time to rally. And on March 12, Dole easily beat Buchanan in all seven of the "Super Tuesday" states holding contests that day.
Back then, Super Tuesday was a classic firewall. If you got burned early, you had the time to gather your forces and beat out the flames.
In 2008, however, there will be no firewall. There will be no time to rally. A large number of states, perhaps as many as 23, are planning on moving up their contests to Feb. 5. They all want instant gratification. They all want to "count" in the nominating process. But they may be reducing themselves to irrelevancy, instead.
Top strategists from both parties tell me the most likely scenario is that after the first contests Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina the race probably will be over.
And that is because the voters on Feb. 5 will have had little time to see, hear or think about the candidates, and the voters will be heavily influenced by who will have won the first contests.
Twenty-three states are also more than the candidates will be able to handle that early. Twenty-three states are more states than the candidates will target in the general election. And in the general election, the candidates have a lot of money, complete staffs and the support of their national parties.
So the most likely scenario is that the candidates will campaign even harder in the very first contests in the hopes that their victories will carry them through the Feb. 5 states.
And instead of having a firewall in 2008, says Alex Castellanos, a strategist for Mitt Romney, there will be an "accelerant." The early states will fire up the process more than ever.
So why are so many states moving up their primaries?
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told us why, when he signed a law last week moving California's primary from June to Feb. 5.
"Now, California is important again in presidential nominating politics," Schwarzenegger said. "And we will get the respect that California deserves."
And by "respect," he means that California will get the candidates coming there and the media coming there and the network anchors setting up in California on Feb. 5 so they can broadcast the results from there.
Except that none of this may happen.
There may be so many contests on Feb. 5, including New York, New Jersey, Florida, Texas, Illinois and Michigan, that the candidates will have very little time for any one state, and the network anchors will probably just stay in New York City and sit in front of a big map.
Because California is so spread out, it has always been a "tarmac" state. Candidates fly from airport to airport, stand on the tarmac to do local TV interviews, and then get back on the plane and fly to the next city.
But by moving up to Feb. 5 with all those other states, California might not even get that anymore.
"We might not have time to land on the tarmac," one Democratic strategist said. "We might just have to wave from the plane."