The shape of the 2008 presidential sweepstakes is gradually becoming clearer through the fog of war. There is a surprising and artful symmetry in how each party's contest is shaping up.
Both parties have clear front-runners Hillary Clinton and John McCain around whom the race will be formed. In each party there is a looming presence whose entry into the race could change it completely. And there is an assortment of ideologically more extreme contenders who are trying to break through and challenge the front-runner.
In the Republican primaries, McCain runs far ahead of all other contenders. But the specter of Rudy Giuliani hangs over the nominating process. If Rudy runs, his challenge will most directly affect McCain, who then would have to battle for the moderate side of the party. But if Rudy stays out, the contest will polarize around the Arizona senator.
But since McCain is on the left of the GOP despite his efforts to court the right he will inevitably face a runoff in the primaries against the great right hope, a title for which Virginia Sen. George Allen, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist are competing. Gov. George Pataki of New York and Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska are considering runs for the nomination, but both would have to battle McCain for the center-left and neither will be able to get much traction in the face of McCain's appeal.
The problem is that McCain probably can't win the Republican nomination. He is too independent, original, creative and populist for his party. A party that prides itself on regularity and corporate grayness won't take a chance on a maverick who led the fight for tough corporate governance, against big tobacco, for campaign-finance reform, against CIA torture and for tough environmental regulation. So the challenger who emerges from the right-wing miniprimary will probably be the nominee.
Interestingly, there is no tall mountain to climb for a challenger in the right-wing alternative-to-McCain derby. Allen is running a narrow first, with Romney slightly behind him. Frist will probably die early from diseases he caught running the Senate. Huckabee, a tremendous speaker with a clerical past and a galvanizing presence, could be a formidable late starter. But none of these candidates is getting many votes, and a good showing by anyone in a debate or a straw poll could begin a miniature landslide. My own bet is that Huckabee is the strongest of the field because of his platform skills. (Disclosure: he's a former client of mine.)
On the Democratic side, Hillary is under increasing fire for her failure to move to the left on the Iraq war. In a massive miscalculation, she aimed at winning the general election by backing the war before she got the nomination, which will be decided by anti-war Democratic primary voters. Her error opens the door for Al Gore, the figure who is the equivalent of Giuliani's looming presence over the Republican primary.
If Gore runs, it will be a dogfight to the end between these two veterans of the Clinton administration. Gore, a virgin on the war and the certified owner of the climate-energy-gas price issue, would give Hillary a very tough contest.
If Gore runs, there is no room for anybody else. If Gore doesn't go for it, Sen. John Kerry and former Sen. John Edwards will assert their claims, but I think they will be easily pushed aside by Hillary. Both backed the war and are seen as losers in the wake of 2004's disaster.
But that does not mean Hillary will have a cakewalk even if Gore stays out. Voters are antsy about nominating Hillary, worried that she is a polarizing figure who can't win. That could open the way for a crop of new Democratic contenders like former Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia or Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana.
But my bet is that if Gore doesn't run, Hillary wins the nomination.
As to the election, whoever wins the Democratic nomination in 2008 will get elected president unless:
(A) Either McCain, Giuliani or my old favorite Condoleezza Rice gets the GOP nomination, or
(B) McCain runs as an independent, a race he could win, thereby reshaping American politics forever.