Washington When it comes to the presidency, the Republican Party has a long tradition of nominating the next guy in line.
That's John McCain - and the failed GOP presidential aspirant of 2000 is positioning himself as the anointed 2008 nominee.
Yet, a full year before the first primary contests, the Republican race is anything but wrapped up. The Arizona senator who once reveled in his reputation for bucking the party line is now running as the establishment candidate, but he faces serious challenges from Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
"Right now, McCain is the front-runner. There are always dangers in being a front-runner. But you'd rather be the front-runner than the also-ran," said Ken Duberstein, a longtime GOP consultant. "The question is whether McCain falters or not."
Others dispute that the front-runner mantle belongs to anyone this early.
"We don't have one yet. There's not enough engagement by the activists and the money people," countered Ed Rogers, a Republican strategist. He said straw polls, dollars in the bank, and key endorsements next year would better gauge the state of play.
Yet, there's no denying the party's history.
"We're respectful of hierarchy," Rogers acknowledged.
Regardless of who has the early edge, McCain, Romney and Giuliani make up the top tier of the crowded GOP presidential field that includes a cast of other lesser-known potential candidates, most of whom would be long-shots should they decide to formally enter the race.
In all, at least a dozen Republicans are considering running to succeed President Bush. With Vice President Dick Cheney having ruled out a candidacy, the cast of wannabes grows daily.
Among them, the McCain, Romney and Giuliani troika are considered contenders believed to be able to raise the $80 million to $100 million next year that operatives say will be needed to mount a viable campaign.
Yet, all three also have positions that raise alarms with the GOP's vitally important conservative base:
¢ Long viewed skeptically by conservatives for his renegade streak, McCain has further agitated them with his position on immigration and his involvement in avoiding a Senate showdown over Bush's judicial nominees.
¢ Romney insists that he opposes abortion and is a defender of traditional marriage. Yet, he voiced more liberal views when he ran as a moderate in his 2002 gubernatorial race and in a failed 1994 Senate bid. He's drawn fire from leading conservatives for such inconsistencies.
¢ Giuliani is a social moderate who supports gun control, same-sex civil unions and abortion rights, stands that run counter to the positions of the GOP's right flank.
Those apparent deficiencies may leave a spot in the field for someone with less-shaky right-wing credentials, such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who the party's base reveres. He says he'll wait until fall to decide whether to seek the nomination.
Meantime, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson have established exploratory committees, and California Rep. Duncan Hunter and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore have said they intend to follow suit. Others said to be mulling a bid include Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, New York Gov. George Pataki, Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, and former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating.