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The 2008 presidential campaign promises to be the first White House contest since 1928 with neither an incumbent president nor vice president in the running. What's more, neither side has an heir apparent, meaning that we face the truly extraordinary prospect of wide-open contests for both major parties' nominations.

As a result, we are likely to see huge fields of candidates -- truly Cecil B. DeMille productions on both sides of the aisle.

On the Republican side, roughly from right to left, we could have Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Sen. George Allen of Virginia, Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Gov. Bill Owens of Colorado, Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Gov. George Pataki of New York, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Certainly, not all of these people will run. (We aren't likely to see Hagel and McCain competing against each other. And Gov. Bush has already said once he will not run in 2008, though that hasn't stopped the Great Mentioner from whispering his name.) But half of these possible candidates -- and, very likely, others -- probably will make a bid for the White House.

On the Democratic side, also from right to left, there's Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia, Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, and, of course, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

These back-of-envelope lists make it clear that both sides' voters will have a selection of candidates reminiscent of Baskin-Robbins's 31 flavors of ice cream. Making predictions now is pointless. In the absence of an incumbent seeking a nomination, the accuracy rate for predicting nominees, even one year out, is dangerously close to zero.

But I think one of the outgrowths of the country's extreme polarization is that perceived electability is far more important than in the past. Voters are more likely to set aside their support for someone who genuinely excites them if they think someone else would have a much better chance of winning.

Recall how quickly Democrats abandoned former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean early this year, even though he endeared himself to the Democratic base by being the first Democratic presidential candidate to aggressively condemn President Bush and unabashedly attack the war in Iraq. Democratic voters turned on Dean in a flash, despite his saying everything they wanted to hear and his very moderate and credible record as governor.

Too bad we can't calculate how Dean would have performed as the Democratic nominee. Though Kerry was considered the most electable Democrat in the 2004 field, my sense is that Kerry won no votes beyond what any other credible Democratic nominee would have received had they challenged Bush under the same circumstances. In fact, I suspect some Democrats might have done better than Kerry. On paper, Dean looks as if he could have won, but whether Dean himself was temperamentally capable of that feat is much more doubtful.

In 2008, the electability debate may well get two workouts, one on each side. Sen. Clinton starts off as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination but would have to convince her party that she could win a general election. Meanwhile, Giuliani would have to persuade his party to overlook his left-leaning positions on certain social issues and allow him to take the GOP in the opposite of the direction it has headed in recent years.

I have extreme difficulty envisioning the GOP nomination going to any candidate who favors abortion rights, gay rights, and gun control. Yet Giuliani was the O-positive universal donor of presidential surrogates this year. He could go anywhere, even to the Deep South, and be a huge hit. No question, the guy is a rock star, even if his views on social issues don't pass the Republican Party's litmus tests.

So, I have a message for the woman in the elevator who confided that her husband doesn't know what to do with himself now that the 2004 election campaign is over: Don't worry -- very soon, there'll be enough 2008 campaign jockeying to keep him glued to the cable news channels.

 
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