WASHINGTON—For millions of Americans, the political season ends Tuesday with the elections for Congress.
But for one very small, very elite and supremely confident group, the last several months were just a warm-up. For 20-plus potential candidates for president in 2008, the presidential campaign starts in earnest Wednesday.
They include more than a dozen white men from the Senate, the birthplace of presidential ambition but often the burial ground of actual campaigns. They include others with different backgrounds—including at least one woman, one Mormon and both a past and the present mayor of New York City.
They also include people who supported the Iraq war, some who opposed it, and all who think they can lead their party and their country into the post-George Bush era.
President Bush is barred by the 22nd Amendment from seeking another term. Vice President Dick Cheney, who has heart problems, has ruled out running. That makes 2008 arguably the most wide-open campaign since 1920—the last time there was no overwhelming favorite in either major party and both the sitting president and vice president were either unable or uninterested in running.
Republicans face the rare challenge of running with and against Bush, all against the backdrop of an Iraq war that could still be under way.
Running with him courts the conservative base that still likes Bush—and dominates Republican primaries. Running against him courts the independents and moderates who'll decide the general election.
It's not easy to do. Ask Al Gore, who had to run with and against Bill Clinton in 2000.
Democrats don't have quite that challenge, but they do have to navigate the war issue, as well as decide where they stand on whatever agenda congressional Democrats put forward.
Here's an early look at the people who are running or may run.
_The front-runner. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York emerges from her all-but-certain landslide re-election Tuesday with the best and worst thing in Democratic politics: the Clinton brand name. It evokes nostalgia among many for the Clinton years of election wins, peace and prosperity—and horror at the prospect of reliving the scandals.
She has positioned herself as a centrist. Initially, she appeared confident that she could hold her party's liberal base in primaries and reach out to moderates in a general election. But recently she has moved to shore up her left flank: tempering her support for the Iraq war with criticism of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, and signaling that she would support gay marriage if it's approved in New York.
_Contenders. Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina is a consistent voice for the poor, a touchstone of Democratic politics. He led the field in one early poll in Iowa, which kicks off the caucus-primary season in about 15 months.
Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin is the purest anti-Bush voice in the campaign. He cheers liberals by reminding them that he opposed the Iraq war and the Patriot Act before his rivals caught up with public opinion and turned negative as well.
_Wild card. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois has been in the Senate for only two years and hasn't actually accomplished anything. But he gives a great let's-all-work-together speech, the news media love a new face, and he could cash in on hunger for a fresh voice and new approach for the post-Bush era.
_Two to watch. Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico is one of the few governors in the pack; four of the last five presidents came from governors' offices. He has cut taxes, raised benefits for National Guard members at war and won in a swing state. He also has foreign policy experience as a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Political bonus: He's half-Hispanic.
Gov. Phil Bredesen of Tennessee is a phenomenally popular Democrat in a largely Republican upper-South state. A native New Yorker and Harvard graduate, as mayor of Nashville in the `90s he oversaw a development boom. He's cruising to re-election as governor on Tuesday, ahead of his Republican opponent by 61-26 percent, according to a new McClatchy Newspapers-MSNBC poll. If Democrats want a fresh face from outside Washington who can appeal to red-state voters, Bredesen can make a case for himself.
_Damaged goods. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts was already the familiar face of defeat—Democrats haven't renominated a loser since they lost a second time with Adlai Stevenson in 1956. Then Kerry handed the Republicans an issue days before the 2006 midterms by appearing to suggest in a botched joke that U.S. soldiers in Iraq are dumb.
_The rest of the potential field. Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, former Vice President Al Gore, and Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa.
_The front-runner. Sen. John McCain of Arizona has one indisputable edge among Republicans: a familiar name. Since 1964, the party has always nominated someone who was president, was the son of a president or had run for president before.
McCain's cross-party appeal to Democrats and independents makes him a strong contender for a general election—if he can win the GOP nomination, which eluded him in 2000.
He has been reaching out to some parts of his party's conservative base, most notably to the Rev. Jerry Falwell and his followers among Christian conservatives. He's also a lead critic of runaway federal spending, a stand popular with fiscal conservatives. But challenging Bush on the torture of suspected terrorists and his maverick streak keep him suspect to some conservatives.
_Contenders. Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee is stepping down as senator and majority leader with hopes of stepping up to the White House. But the country hasn't elected a senator since 1960.
Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani cleaned up New York City, then led it through the September 2001 terrorist attacks with a steady hand. He's at the top of early polls, along with McCain. But his relatively liberal stands on social issues and his two divorces could hurt him with conservatives.
_Provocateur. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich can skewer either side with relish and zing. His suggested slogan for Democrats this year: "Had enough?" If the Republicans lose Congress, he gains stature anew as the man who led them back to power the last time, in 1994. But his personal history of two ugly divorces could hurt him.
_One to watch. Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts saved the Salt Lake City Olympics, got elected in the heart of liberal darkness and pushed through a bipartisan expansion of health care. And he stirred conservatives when he refused a state police escort for the visiting former president of Iran. The question mark: How will primary voters react to a Mormon?
_Toast. Sen. George Allen of Virginia was to be the next Ronald Reagan. Then his missteps threw his re-election campaign into freefall and hurt his image. Even if he survives Tuesday, he's damaged goods.
_Burnt toast. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania was the purest conservative in the pack. Then the Democrats put a conservative up against him and polls show him likely to lose his seat in the Senate—and at the presidential campaign table.
_Wild card. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says she has no interest in seeking elective office. But there's already a movement to draft her to run. And President Bush could start pushing her to run. He has no one else to support—his brother and his vice president don't want to run—and no one better to maintain his foreign policy.
_The rest of the field. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Gov. George Pataki of New York.
(Steven Thomma is chief political correspondent for the McClatchy Washington bureau. Write to him at: McClatchy Newspapers, 700 12th St. N.W., Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20005-3994, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)
OTHER WIDE-OPEN CAMPAIGNS?
Some people say this is the most wide-open presidential race since 1952. But 1952 started with President Harry Truman eligible to run because the new 22nd Amendment limiting a president to two terms didn't apply to him. Truman didn't take himself out of the running until after Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee defeated him in the New Hampshire primary.
Others say it's the most wide-open since 1928. But Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover was well known and the overwhelming favorite for the Republican nomination. He won most of the primaries and coasted to the nomination.
For more information on potential 2008 presidential candidates: