Gaming Out a Long Campaign

You know the conventional wisdom about the 2008 presidential race. It goes like this: we'll know the identity of the two parties' presidential nominees by the first week of February. After earlier-than-ever voting in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, and the thermonuclear explosion of Mega-Giga-Tuesday on Feb. 5, there will be only one person left standing in each party, and we'll quickly get sucked into an absurdly long, eight-month "fall" general-election-campaign season.

Well, it looks increasingly like the CW is wrong. Yes, it's still possible that someone will run the table that quickly. Sen. Barack Obama (astonishingly) has the best odds of doing so.

But the real story is that the races are so close, crowded and unpredictable that wars of attrition on both sides are a rising possibility. If they occur, that would be bad news for the Republican Party--and for New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

I'll explain that in a minute. But first, let's survey the teeming battlefield. I can't remember a presidential campaign with this many legitimate contenders at the start of the nominating season: eight, not counting Ron Paul, who has big-time money. Each has a foothold somewhere, and a big or small piece of their party's turf to stand on.

The accumulation of a majority of convention delegates--the name of the game, after all--could last a long time, perhaps all the way to next summer. It could happen.

On the Democratic side, John Edwards has a shot at Iowa, of course. If he wins there, South Carolina (and Nevada) could fall into his lap. Even if he finishes a close second in Iowa, he remains very much in the game. Inside Hillary Clinton's campaign, planning is underway for surviving an Iowa loss--and even a loss in New Hampshire and other early states. She has tons of financial backers and the support of major unions, as well as 20 years' worth of Clinton family contacts in the states voting on Feb. 5 and beyond. If Obama wins Iowa, he will be hard to stop, and he will have lots of money. But going national, and facing more antagonistic scrutiny, could slow him down.

The GOP situation is even murkier, with five major contenders. The permutations of the scenarios for states and candidates are in the thousands: Mike Huckabee in Iowa, but not New Hampshire; Mitt Romney not in Iowa but surviving in New Hampshire; John McCain's revival in New Hampshire and South Carolina; Rudy Giuliani hanging on until Florida; Fred Thompson doing BTE (better than expected) in Iowa; Paul (don't laugh) finishing a shocking second or close third in New Hampshire.

The media dynamics are impossible to predict. What will be the biggest story coming out of Iowa on the night of Jan. 3? How will that translate in New Hampshire a mere five days later?

It's now just as likely that Feb. 5 will leave six or seven contenders with enough delegates in hand to want to fight on--especially since it will be that much harder for anyone to quickly amass a majority of delegates. Uncertainty could feed on itself.

Why is that bad for the Republican Party as a whole? Two reasons. For one, they need unity to avoid a blowout. Also, their anti-Democratic strategy relies on the theory that we will know early who the Dems' nominee is. The GOP's only hope next fall is to confuse the issue about which party is the "incumbent" one in Washington. Republicans want to tie the Democratic nominee as fast as they can to the unpopular Democratic majority in Congress. The longer the Democratic presidential candidates can stay away from Congress, the better. A long fight for the nomination would help.

And Bloomberg? His is a sees-his-chances campaign, waiting to pounce as a result of voter dissatisfaction with the two major-party candidates. Which scenario would help him more: a quick decision or a long race? I think it's a quick decision. If there is one, the GOP and Democrats will be attacking each other in fall-election mode for many months. That, in turn, would give Bloomberg a chance, by the spring, to enter the race in the name of ending the gridlock produced by partisan rancor.

The longer we don't know who the nominees are--that is, the longer the Democratic and Republican horse-race stories dominate the headlines--the smaller the window for Bloomberg to climb through. He needs an American public thoroughly bored and disgusted with both parties. This year's nominating season may be too long and exciting for that.