Paul Greenberg

As for her leading rivals, Barack Obama brought great promise to this campaign mainly because he brought so little experience. But the map of his ideas remains almost as blank as it did the day he announced. He's supposed to represent a new generation in politics, but it may be Generation X.

Then there's John Edwards, whose role in this campaign is not blank at all but quite familiar in American politics: demagogue. He's been in training for it for years, and played it to the hilt four years ago as the Democrats' vice-presidential candidate. Is there an appeal to class envy the man has not made by now? He is the trial lawyer of presidential candidates, treading back and forth before this nationwide jury looking for any threads of emotion to exploit.

Unlike the Democratic field, in which one candidate would seem to be the woman to beat, the GOP's crop of contenders has yet to jell. But it's been fun watching Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney being born again as a red-state conservatives. Fred Thompson hovers somewhere over the race, but it's still not clear whether he'll prove the party's best hope or last resort. John McCain is still there, too, as he has been for so long, but political virtues like integrity, consistency and experience are so . . . dull. This is a country that craves the new. Whether the new is good, bad or indifferent may be only a secondary consideration.

Mike Huckabee's genuine Arkansas character, or maybe genuine Arkansas eccentricity, continues to charm not only Iowans but sophisticates in the Eastern press. But he may be dismissed as unelectable even if he does well in the early elections. Fixed opinions are hard to overcome.

For now, the more candid, even eccentric, candidates of both parties can be refreshing, They offer a welcome contrast with the gray background provided by their oh-so-respectable rivals. They give voters a definite choice even it's not a very rational one.

Ron Paul on the Republican side and Dennis Kucinich on the Democratic side appeal to the true believers in their respective parties because they have selves, however quirky, not just campaign posters. Each represents a genuine populist/protectionist/isolationist America. They represent not so much a school of thought as a whole ethos. They bring a missing element to this presidential campaign: the kind of deranged authenticity removed from the modern world that Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan brought in 1992. That year the country also felt adrift - and decided to remain that way by going with Bill Clinton, who could make drift sound like a high and noble mission.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.