It could be a campaign of historic "firsts." Americans could elect the first woman president in Hillary Clinton. Or the first African-American president in Barack Obama. The first Mormon, Mitt Romney. The first Hispanic, Bill Richardson. The oldest president, John McCain.
That's just for starters. The unique nature of the presidential field is reflected in the wild-card candidates still sitting on the sidelines, ranging from former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson to former Vice President Al Gore. They seem ready to pounce if the current contenders falter. "It's a race without an incumbent president or vice president," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "You're starting with the kind of blank slate that almost assures that it's going to be a wild-card race. There's a complete absence of a front-runner on the Republican side, which is unprecedented. On both sides, even the attractive candidates have flaws and shortcomings that the voters will have to wrestle with."
This unconventional dynamic was underscored again last week when Obama, a reform-minded freshman senator from Illinois, reported raising $32.5 million in the second quarter. This was more than any Democratic candidate in history during a similar period-and well ahead of Clinton's $27 million. Obama's fundraising breakthrough raised anew the prospect that Clinton should not be considered the inevitable nominee, despite her lead in national polls.
Actually, Clinton is a wild card in her own right. Only a few years ago, the role of first lady was mainly as helpmate and hostess. No more. The election of Hillary Clinton would represent an extraordinary advance for women in politics-making her the world's most powerful person, a fact not lost on her enthusiastic army of female supporters.
Yet she carries considerable baggage from her eight years as first lady, when critics concluded that she was ruthless, bloodless, and an extreme liberal. Now she is trying to show her warm and pragmatic side as a senator from New York whose work ethic has made her popular in even conservative areas of her state.
Another wild card is her husband. Bill Clinton kept out of the spotlight until he popped up last week for a series of campaign events with his wife in Iowa, home of the first caucus, where Senator Clinton lags in second or third place. The charismatic ex-president briefly introduced his wife at their campaign stops but didn't overshadow her, as some of her supporters feared he might do. But Bill Clinton brings another big asset-he is one of the most brilliant strategists of his generation.
On the GOP side, Rudy Giuliani has been leading nationwide for the nomination despite being at odds with his party's base as a New York liberal on social issues-like abortion and gay rights-important to conservatives. If he wins the nomination, the Republican Party will be a different entity than it has been for a generation.
Meanwhile, Arizona Sen. John McCain, once the front-runner, continues to fade, amid conservative opposition to his stands on immigration and campaign reform and distrust of his maverick ways. Independent voters strongly disagree with his support of the Iraq war, and many Americans think that, at 70, his time has passed.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is making steady progress in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he holds modest leads, but he is still far behind in national polls. He told U.S. News he is considering making a major speech explaining how his Mormon faith would fit into a Romney presidency, since his religion is a source of concern among many conservative Christians.
Then there is Thompson, recognizable to many voters because of his tough-guy movie and TV roles. Thompson has been propelled to the top of the Republican field on the basis of his conservative views, appeal as a Washington outsider, and communication skills, all of which remind some of Ronald Reagan. The GOP race is so unsetted that Thompson is leading in some GOP polls even though he isn't expected to enter the race until later this month.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is also trying to parlay himself as an "ideas candidate" who could inject a more aggressive conservatism into the GOP race. He says he might enter the field this fall if other candidates don't adopt his ideas.
On the other side, Gore's warnings about climate change have vindicated him among many Democrats since his loss of the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000. Gore is consistently in the top three or four Democratic candidates, even though he isn't in the race.
Finally, there's Michael Bloomberg, the wealthy New York mayor. Bloomberg recently announced he was leaving the Republican Party and becoming an independent, fueling speculation that he is poised to run an independent presidential campaign next year. Bloomberg could capitalize on deep voter dissatisfaction with the partisanship and bickering in official Washington. Only about 30 percent of voters think President Bush is doing a good job, slightly better than Congress. Bloomberg, a billionaire, could pay for his own campaign, so he could enter the race late and run as an effective, nonpartisan manager of a large and complex municipal government.
There are cautionary tales, of course. The last serious third-force candidate was Ross Perot in 1992. He won 19 percent of the vote but didn't carry a single state. Frank Luntz, the GOP pollster who advised Perot that year, says voter anger at Washington is starting to exceed the levels of '92. This means there is a clear opening for an independent candidate-or a spoiler who could throw the race to one major-party candidate or the other.
Michael Bloomberg, New York mayor
--Possible independent candidate, known as problem solver
--Vast wealth frees him from special interests, boosters say
--Rides the subway
Fred Thompson, former Tennessee senator
--Appeals to conservatives unhappy with other candidates
--Impressive TV skills
--Unclear how he would stand up to scrutiny, pressure
Al Gore, former vice president
--His climate-change fight is widely popular among Democrats.
--Won popular vote over Bush in 2000
--Denies plans to run but leaves door open
KEEP AN EYE ON...
John Edwards, who has staked his candidacy on early Democratic victories in Iowa and New Hampshire. If he fails, his campaign is most likely over. Mitt Romney has a similar "springboard" strategy in the GOP race, hoping early victories will propel him into the megastates that hold their primaries on February 5.
By Kenneth T. Walsh