There are two distinct themes in the Democratic and Republican contests for the presidential nomination next year.
The Democrats theme is " big change." Their challenge is not only to find a nominee who can change their losing 2000-2004 losing streak, but to decide how to change the way Democrats do public policy business.
The Republicans theme is "some difference." Their challenge is to determine not only how different their nominee will be from incumbent president George W. Bush, but also to decide if the difference they want will enable them to remain viable as a party which appeals to the majority of American voters..
It should be noted that the "big" change sought by Democrats and the "some" change by Republicans indicates a greater intensity for the out-of-White House Democrats. This gives them a natural emotional advantage in 2008, although it does not insure their victory.
A subtheme of the Democrats' theme of big change is that they want to win very badly. We will be finding out, beginning with Iowa and New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, how the Democratic voters assess who it is who can get this job done. In the Democratic field, only Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards appear to be in the finals. Bill Richardson, Joe Biden and Christopher Dodd do not appear to have made it through the long preliminaries, although the sudden rise of Mike Huckabee on the Republican side indicates that nothing this political season is impossible. Of those three in the top "tier," only Mr. Obama qualifies as a "new" face. Mrs. Clinton is universally known, and John Edwards came in second in 2004 against John Kerry, and was Mr. Kerry's vice presidential running mate that year.
Of those who seem to have made it to the finals in the Republican contest, Mitt Romney, Mr. Huckabee and Fred Thompson qualify as "new" faces. John McCain and Rudy Giuliani are well-known national figures.
Armed with the news of Mr. Obama's and Mr. Huckabee's "surges" in recent days, there is once again a rash of predictions and analyses about the outcome. I continue to believe, as I have stated continually in recent months, that we do not know who the party nominees will be.
But we are getting very close to knowing a great deal more. Iowans will caucus in two weeks. Five days later, New Hampshire voters will hold their primary. This cycle, a Nevada caucus and a South Carolina primary will take place shortly afterwards. After the questionable Michigan primary (only one Democrat is competing) and an "illegal" Florida primary (where everyone is competing), there will be the mother of all primary days on February 5 (where almost half the delegates will be chosen on one day).
The winning Democratic and Republican candidate in Iowa has no assurance of winning the nomination, but this year, as in some others in the past, Iowa is turning out to be more important than anticipated. In the long, and many say tedious, preliminary campaign for 2008, voter attitudes and preferences were only speculated about. The frontrunners in the opinion polls, always Mrs. Clinton on the Democratic side; first, Mr. McCain and then Mr. Giuliani on the Republican side; seemed to defy certain laws of political gravity. In Mrs. Clinton's case, it was her chronic and extraordinarily high poll negatives. In Mr. McCain's case, it was his stubborn advocacy of issues unpopular to the GOP base (which eventually did take him out of first place). In Mr. Giuliani's case, it was history of social liberalism equally unpopular to GOP base voters.
Only the polls conducted in the week before the Iowa caucus are usually reliable, so the outcome there is not really known, but it would appear that Mr. Obama has a reasonable chance of winning there. Should he do so, it is unclear whether Mr. Edwards or Mrs. Clinton would come in second. It is even possible, with his organization and his good 2004 Iowa result, that Mr. Edwards could win. And it is also possible, despite the Obama surge, that Mrs. Clinton could win. If Obama and Edwards finish first and second,in either order, and Mrs. Clinton finishes third, her current lead in New Hampshire could melt away. If her "inevitability" thus evaporates, it could become a long contest that goes past February 5. This would be even more likely if some of the "second tier" candidates remain in the race, particularly Mr. Biden. On the other hand, if Mrs. Clinton wins or comes in a close second in Iowa and wins New Hampshire big, her nomination would seem to be assured.
Of particular importance this year are the so-called "super-delegates" made up of elected Democrats and party officials. This is a very large group, and considered the Democratic "establishment." It was widely thought that these delegates would go overwhelmingly to Mrs.Clinton, and they may, but even more than grass roots delegates, this bloc has a powerful stake in choosing a nominee who is likely to win in November. If the early primaries, and February 5, indicate that Mrs. Clinton is perceived by Democratic voters as weak or unlikeable, the super-delegates will likely switch to Mr. Obama, or to Mr. Edwards if he closes very strong and wins a lot of primaries.
On the Republican side, it is even foggier. Mr. Romney was supposed to win Iowa by a big margin. He is currently well ahead in New Hampshire. A defeat in Iowa and New Hampshire would almost certainly be mortal blows. Mr. Giuliani, a frontrunner for so long, has reverted to his original strategy of largely ignoring Iowa and New Hampshire, and devoting himself to big wins in Florida and then in the large northeastern and midwestern states and California. But not only Mr. Huckabee is surging. Mr. McCain seems much back in the news with prominent newspaper and political endorsements, and some have suggested that Mr. Thompson is at last showing some life in Iowa.
In fact, a reasonable scenario could be made at this point in the campaign for any of the five top tier GOP candidates to win. Since each of them has potential strengths in the February 5 primary states where so many delegates are chosen, it would seem that the Republican delegate count after February 5 could be far from decisive, even possibly leading to a contested convention in St.Paul in September.
If Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Romney or Mr. Giuliani fail to capture their party's nomination in the next six weeks or so, and even fade from contention, I think it will be because they did not really address their voters deepest concerns. All Democrats want change, i.e., change in who is running the country, but Democratic voters might also deeply crave a new kind of liberal politics. Mrs. Clinton's strategy of "overwhelming force" (of name recognition, money, organization and her husband) may itself be overwhelmed by a greater force of generational change. Mr. Giuliani's strategy of performing an end-run on social conservatives in his party by emphasizing his fiscal conservatism and his war on terror bona fides may be overwhelmed by a need for more conservative likability and charm. We don't know yet how badly Republicans want to win in 2008.
Whoever the nominees of each party will be, they will have to face each other in a bruising November campaign that will be decided, as virtually all U.S. presidential campaigns are decided, in the political center. Perhaps that is why John McCain's candidacy, long ago pronounced deceased, remains alive and still kicking, and perhaps that is why we do not yet understand the full consequences of Barack Obama's sudden appearance on the American political landscape.