Jill Zuckman was the first to fire off a groan over early forecasting about the 2008 presidential contest.
"Who knows what's going to happen over the next two years," said Zuckman of the Chicago Tribune.
But when pressed, the 10-member panel of political journalists, pollsters and consultants at the Dole Institute of Politics on Friday projected Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) would defeat Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) for the presidency in 2008.
Several panelists gave McCain the advantage for being well-known among a short bench of Republican candidates, including Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, due in part to the re-election defeats in November of two other potential candidates, Sen. George Allen of Virginia and Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
None of the panelists thought former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani would run, partly because of his failure to organize in 2006.
McCain, however, is now the front-runner who doesn't "appear to be particularly joyful about it," the Washington Post's Dan Balz told the 60 people who attended the last of a two-day 2006 Post-Election Conference at the Dole Institute.
But with Iraq a lightening-rod issue that damaged Republicans in last month's midterm elections, Balz said for the straight-talking McCain to change his unpopular position among some voters for an increase in troops would be "fatal."
Among Democrats, the panel looked at the possible Democratic contest among Sen. Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, and former Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards of North Carolina.
Panelists favored Clinton because of her ability to raise money.
But she may also have a disadvantage.
"You think there's Bush fatigue?" said Republican consultant Joseph Gaylor. "Let's bring back Clinton fatigue."
But Obama may also have a problem getting elected because of limited experience, four years in the U.S. Senate and seven in the Illinois state Senate.
"I wonder about those who think he is much more electable than Hillary," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Hamden, Conn.-based Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
Brown added that Clinton has an advantage of a larger base in a party where 57 percent of primary voters are women compared with 20 percent African-American.
A Nov. 27 poll by Quinnipiac indicated that unlike Clinton, who has universal recognition, 41 percent of those polled do not know enough about Obama to make a decision.
Political panel at Dole Institute
Obama, whose father was black, could be a "bump in the night," especially in the South, said Democratic strategist Ray Strother.
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who announced this week he would possibly run for president, faces an uphill battle, said Scott Reed, former campaign manager for Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign.
But he could have a conservative impact on party ideas by polling 10 to 15 percent in a primary.
And that would be worth it to him, said Gerald Seib of The Wall Street Journal.