There was a time, not so long ago, when political conventions were decided at the conventions themselves. Large blocs of delegates would arrive "uncommitted," which was to say in the pockets of state and local leaders, and the bargaining would go on long into the night. Eventually, somebody would put together an unbeatable combination and take the nomination. Today, however, the conventions are simply coronations -- the formal nomination of candidates who have already assembled the necessary votes by winning the major state primaries. No doubt it's much more democratic this way, since most delegates have been chosen in those primaries and have promised to vote for a specific candidate. But it's taken a lot of the fun out of the process and virtually eliminated the proverbial "smoke-filled room."
In any case, it is almost certain that we will know the identity of the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates when the smoke has blown away on Feb. 5. By that date, the important early primaries -- notably those in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina -- will already have been held, and on Feb. 5, about 20 additional states will proclaim their choices. In both parties, the ultimate winners will almost certainly be obvious by then.
Curiously enough, the Republican race is still wide open, with four or five candidates still in serious contention. But the Democratic battle has narrowed down to just three major contenders -- Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and former Sen. John Edwards -- and it is becoming apparent that Clinton is edging ahead.
Of the three, Edwards seems to be slipping most visibly. Only 11 percent of likely Democratic voters name him as their choice. He is certainly an attractive candidate, with a wife who is a distinct plus, but he has never generated much party-wide appeal. Accordingly, he is putting his hopes -- and most of his money -- in Iowa, whose caucuses will kick off the season. Not surprisingly, polls show him doing well there, and he calculates that victory in Iowa will give him the boost needed for victory in New Hampshire (where he is not doing so well), and then lead on to victories elsewhere. But that strategy involves a lot of "ifs."
Obama's entry into the presidential race surprised just about everybody, and initially thrilled a great many people who had gotten a little tired of regarding Clinton as the inevitable nominee. At first, his poll numbers actually began to equal hers. But doubts seem to have set in among many voters -- perhaps fueled by the thought that three not very distinguished years in the U.S. Senate are a less-than-stellar qualification for the presidency. In any case, more recent polls show him backed by only 25 percent of likely Democratic voters.
Meanwhile, Clinton's support in that same group stands at an impressive 47 percent. That's not overwhelming, to be sure, and it is balanced, and to some degree diminished, by her negative rating among many voters, which is the highest of any candidate in either party. But she doesn't need her party's unanimous support to win its nomination, and right now she is clearly the front-runner.
Moreover, in recent TV appearances, she has come across as composed and sure of herself, and centrally positioned on many of the key issues. I happen to be one of those who suspect she has a tin ear for political nuances, but, if so, this is balanced by the fact that her husband (and chief adviser) probably has the best ear in American politics.
Whether she could win the presidency is another question. But being a woman is not likely to be a major disadvantage and may even be an asset. (Margaret Thatcher in Britain, and now Angela Merkel in Germany, have paved the way.) America will certainly have a woman president sooner or later, and Clinton has earned the right to make a serious bid for the job.