Not since 1952 has the nation entered a presidential year with greater seeming uncertainty as to who will face off in November.
Early that year, Tennessee Sen. Ernest Kefauver upset Harry Truman in New Hampshire, relieving the nation by dashing Harry's hopes for another four years. The Republican race would be a titanic struggle between the Eastern Establishment's Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and "Mr. Republican," Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, the conservative paragon.
Splitting the primaries between them, Ike and Taft fought all the way to the convention, where Ike's Texas delegates were seated and Bob Taft's booted.
How important was that race? Ike would win and serve two terms. His young running mate, Richard Nixon, would be twice elected president. A dark horse for that GOP nomination, Gov. Earl Warren of California, who threw his support to Ike at a critical moment, would be named chief justice. Out of that Republican race would come the Eisenhower era, the Nixon presidency, the Warren court.
And though the 2008 GOP race may seem wide open, it is already probably down to three candidates, could be over by Jan. 4 and will probably be down to two by Jan. 9, the morning after New Hampshire.
The front-runner since spring, Rudy Giuliani, is close to toast.
By dropping out of the Iowa Straw Poll in August, Rudy ceded Iowa and the cornucopia of publicity the winner receives. He is running far behind in Iowa, sinking in New Hampshire and certain to be skunked twice by Jan. 9. If so, he will lose Michigan, then South Carolina, where he is already far behind, and Florida, his firewall, where he is now slipping behind both Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney.
If Rudy is 0-4 going into Florida, he loses Florida. If he is 0-5 going into the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday states, his national lead will be ancient history. In some national polls, it has already vanished.
The same holds for Fred Thompson. Though Iowans were eagerly awaiting his appearance at the straw poll, Fred, too, took a pass. And though he seems ideally suited to the party, he is running so far behind in New Hampshire and Michigan it is hard to see how he survives to reach home base, South Carolina. There, he is already behind Romney and Huckabee. In New Hampshire, Fred is behind Ron Paul.
Wisely, he is headed for Iowa to put all his chips on a strong showing, hoping Romney and Huckabee will do to each other what Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean did: rip each other out of contention.