THE 2008 election is three years off, and the jockeying is already intense. Most insiders have concluded that the Democratic finalists are likely to come down to Hillary Rodham Clinton and one or two anti-Hillarys. The Atlantic Monthly recently reported a confidential poll of leading Democratic and Republican insiders indicating that 49 of 63 Democrats and 48 of 56 Republicans expected Clinton to be the nominee.
Why Hillary? First, the potent Clinton political apparatus enables her to raise prodigious sums. Second, she has proven in places like upstate New York that she can attract independent support. Third, she is a real charmer, having worked with Republican senators on legislation of joint interest -- people who initially viewed her as the arch-fiend.
She also has an uncanny ability to charm reporters. New York magazine recently ran an adoring cover piece illustrated by Hillary taking the presidential oath as Bill lovingly looked on. The writer confessed to initial skepticism, but after following her around for a few weeks was totally won over. Last week, the left-wing Nation magazine (The Nation!) ran a story almost as worshipful.
This does not mean, however, that Hillary is a lefty. On the contrary, she is consciously positioned in the political center, deftly fine-tuning her rhetoric on abortion, casting some pro-business votes, and sounding tough on defense. Like Bill.
Even if she gets the nomination, can Senator Clinton possibly be elected? She is very much a polarizer who will energize every right-winger in America. She has told associates, however, that being a polarizer can actually be a plus, as George W. Bush has demonstrated: It doesn't matter if you rally the other side's base as long as you rally your own base plus enough moderates.
In 2004, women's support for John Kerry lagged Al Gore's in 2000. Presumably, America's women will flock to Hillary.
But Senator Clinton's own complex political identity may be a problem. Many Democratic progressives, female and male, just don't trust her because she has trimmed on too many issues too many times. And they're not at all sure she can be elected. The aroused Democratic base may not, in fact, offset the antagonistic Republican base.
Also, though Clinton's issues are moderate, her persona isn't. For traditionalists, she is tainted, unfairly, in two contradictory ways. She is irrevocably seen as a pushy woman, but also a wronged woman -- which makes her seem weak at a time when Americans need someone strong. If she can overcome all these hurdles, maybe she deserves to be president.
The anti-Hillary contenders are every bit as interesting, each also with assets and liabilities. Delaware Senator Joe Biden, one of the few senior Democrats with heft on defense and foreign policy, has given some terrific speeches offering real gravitas. Enough time has elapsed since his famous hair transplant and infamous plagiarism of then British Labor leader Neil Kinnock that Biden can probably rise above the digs. He's a serious leader at a time when Americans desperately need one.
John Edwards, out from under John Kerry's shadow, has been sounding more cogently populist than ever. He is not in office, and hence has three years to make speeches and alliances and acquire some foreign policy credentials. He also has commendable gumption. For instance, he is working with the grass-roots group ACORN to put living-wage initiatives on state ballots. In November 2004, an ACORN-sponsored initiative to raise the minimum wage carried every single Florida county, winning with 71 percent of the vote, or a million votes more than Bush.
John Kerry may well give it another shot, as the candidate who came up just one state short in 2004, perhaps due to deliberately contrived long lines that held down Democratic turnout in Ohio. Kerry, older and wiser, will be armed with his formidable list of 2004 donors.
Any of these three, and possible dark horses like Gore (who gives inspired speeches except when he's running), General Wesley Clark, or moderate Indiana Governor Evan Bayh, could emerge as the non-Hillary. For all the talk of a thin Democratic bench, it's a promising field: the breakthrough-but-reassuring woman, the foreign policy eminence, the credible populist, the seasoned veterans, the general, and the red-state moderate.
Sadly, more than anything else, money will determine the finalists. ''In 2008," says Steve Grossman, former Democratic national chairman and treasurer, ''50 million dollars is the table stakes to play." That may initially favor Hillary, but it does not favor our democracy. And Republicans have millions more.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.