No incumbent. No favorite. Anything could happen
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 periodand 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 politicsmaking 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 assethe 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 issueslike abortion and gay rightsimportant 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.