Maybe not so front-loaded after all.
That was the critique, you remember. Party leaders, more skilled in the political arts than in the language arts, front-loaded the 2008 presidential race so much that both parties' nominees would be known in about 10 days from now. That was the theory, at least, and it would have given us a general election campaign from Feb. 6 to Nov. 4, or about the gestation period of a human being.
In only the most recent example of how man (and at least one woman) plans and God laughs, things may not be working out quite that way. This column was written before South Carolina's Democrats completed their Saturday balloting, but even if Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton were to roll to victory, that won't mean that the struggle for the Democratic presidential nomination is over. Far from it.
GOP fight lacks order
The same goes on the Republican side, where a party that likes order and believes in the hierarchical nature of society can't bring any order or hierarchy to its nomination fight. There hasn't been a Republican nomination fight like this one since ... forever.
The bloody battles of 1976 (former Gov. Ronald Reagan challenging President Gerald R. Ford) and 1988 (Sen. Bob Dole and a gaggle of others taking on Vice President George H.W. Bush) resolved themselves to a comprehensible fight by midnight of the New Hampshire primary. This morning it's still anyone's guess whether the Republican nomination will go to the witty pastor, the iconoclastic fighter pilot, the suave businessman or the battling mayor. (The tough-talking lazy senator broke camp and quit on Tuesday.)
But that's the point. Republicans are like a fraternal lodge, or they were until New Year's Day 2008, with each man taking his turn, in orderly fashion, at the leadership role, much the way the Elks and the Eagles conduct themselves. It was pretty much George H.W. Bush's turn in 1988, and it sure was Mr. Dole's turn in 1996, and there was consensus that Gov. Bush had the best shot at winning in 2000, which he did only after a 36-day overtime in the general election. But now it's nobody's turn, which is why on some days the GOP campaign looks like a race nobody will win.
Leader not so esteemed
One of the reasons there is such confusion is that the esteemed leading knight, as the Elks might put it, isn't quite so esteemed within his own lodge or aerie. The campaign of Sen. John McCain of Arizona has been powered in large measure by support from independents, who have been able to vote in the early contests but who, a reasonable observer might conclude, shouldn't really have a major voice in how a party selects its nominee. The next important states on the calendar apparently agree; Florida and California restrict Republican primary participation to Republicans, and that makes the road tougher for Mr. McCain to negotiate.
Then again - back to the essential nature of the Republican species - Mr. McCain is not exactly clubbable, which is a word that hasn't been used very often since Samuel Johnson coined it in the 1780s but which is particularly apt for a GOP nomination campaign. He bullies the very business interests the party has cultivated, has been a rebel in every institution he has ever been a part of (no one at Annapolis or in the Senate cloakroom would dispute this statement for a moment), and sometimes seems as if he is running a range war against his own party in the search for his party's greatest gift.
The only odder strategy is the one being run by former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York, which so far has played out like this: Compete just enough in the early contests that are magnets for media attention to be mortified when you finish way down in the pack, then invest everything in Tuesday's primary in Florida, which is full of people who left New York for one reason or another, and then find that you may even be the underdog in that contest. Heck of a way to win a nomination.
Don't forget former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. For months he played the faith card. He is not, to his credit, holier than thou, but he tried to be closer than thou, or at least closer than former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, to religious conservatives in Iowa.
That was then. This is now, and now he's trying a different tack. An excerpt from a fundraising e-mail sent by one of his Bay State business friends illuminates the change: "[N]ow that the campaign focus is turning to the economy and foreign affairs and away from social issues, the real strength of Mitt's candidacy is becoming apparent." (Q: What, governor, was Iowa all about? A: Never mind.)
Democrats also still uncertain
Not that the Democrats have sorted out their nomination fight. They lunge from one front-runner to another, from one breakthrough candidate to another, from one assertion that race shouldn't matter to another that it should, from one asperity on this or that to another. They have 1,681 delegates at stake in 22 states and one territory Feb. 5, a delegate cluster that accounts for 52 percent of all the pledged delegates to the Denver convention.
But a measure of the upheaval in the political world - an analogue, you might say, to the upheaval in the financial markets last week - is that some of the principal issues in the Democratic campaigns last week weren't the record and remarks of President Bush but the record and remarks of former President Bill Clinton. The Republicans aren't the only ones who have reason to worry how this campaign turns out, front-loaded or not.