IMAGE: Sen. Clinton
J. Scott Applewhite / AP file
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., addresses the New Democratic Network in Washington on June 23.
updated 7/4/2006 7:24:58 AM ET 2006-07-04T11:24:58

Seems like anyone who can run for president in 2008 is considering it.

And who can blame them?

For the first time since 1928, there is no president running for re-election or vice president seeking his party’s nomination.

More than a dozen Democrats and more than a dozen Republicans are mentioned as possible candidates for the White House. And a group of activists is promoting the concept of a bipartisan or independent ticket for 2008.

“Every governor and every senator wakes up each morning and hums ‘Hail to the Chief’ while getting ready for work,” said Republican consultant Rich Galen. “There will be more people than at any time in my memory who will at least take the early steps to see if they can make a run.”

Front-runners
On the Republican side, Arizona Sen. John McCain is the highest-profile politician likely considering a run. For the Democrats, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is viewed as her party’s front-runner.

“Both of these candidates will be so strong in the polls and fundraising that the other candidates will have a difficult time getting oxygen,” said Scott Reed, a Republican strategist. “These folks will have to decide early. If one chooses not to run, it will then be the Wild West.”

Virginia Sen. George Allen and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney could be strong GOP candidates and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is popular, though his support for abortion and gay rights would be an obstacle in Republican primaries. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s name has surfaced repeatedly, though she keeps denying any interest.

Other Republicans to watch include: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, New York Gov. George Pataki, Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

McCain, who has been at odds with religious conservatives in the past, needs to garner the support of the conservative wing of his party. Clinton, who has been cautious on her position about the Iraq war, needs to energize the liberal wing and convince Democrats that she can win a general election.

Midterms could be key
The outcome of the midterm elections is certain to influence both those missions.

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“The great question is when does the voters’ anger abate? Right now it’s an angry electorate,” says Democratic consultant Dane Strother. “If this were a presidential year, the front-runner would be an outsider. People are so disillusioned with Washington.”

Former Vice President Al Gore claims he has no plans to run, but his tour promoting his global warming movie “An Inconvenient Truth” has a campaign flavor about it and has raised his stock in some Democratic circles.

Other Democrats looking at 2008: Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the party’s presidential nominee in 2004; John Edwards, Kerry’s running mate; former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner; New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson; Delaware Sen. Joe Biden; Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd; Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold; Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh; Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack; former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle; and retired Gen. Wesley Clark.

Voters and political parties are not always kind to politicians who have known defeat, as Gore, Kerry and Edwards have in a presidential campaign and several others, including McCain, have in the primaries.

Pessimists need not apply
But newcomers and second acts are united by one trait.

“In order to run for elective office,” said Democratic strategist Anita Dunn, “you need to be an incurable optimist.”

A lack of interest, not optimism, led President Calvin Coolidge to surprise everyone — even his wife — by deciding not to seek another term in 1928. His vice president, Charles G. Dawes, wasn’t strong enough with party regulars to get the Republican nomination, either. The GOP turned to Herbert Hoover, the popular and respected Commerce Department secretary who went on to defeat the Democratic nominee, New York Gov. Al Smith.

The last wide-open race came in 1952 after Harry Truman opted not to run for re-election. Truman had decided not to run well before the nominating season began, but he didn’t officially drop out until Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver defeated him in the New Hampshire primary.

Truman’s vice president, Alben Barkley, sought the nomination, but he was in his 70s and bowed out because of doubts raised over his age. The Democrats nominated Illinois Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson, who lost to GOP nominee Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In those days, as they had for decades, party bosses operated in the tradition of the “smoke-filled room.” They picked many of the convention delegates and had more control over who became the nominee. By 1972, rules for both parties were changing to put more power in the hands of voters through primaries and caucuses, said Thomas Cronin, a presidential scholar at Colorado College.

“What makes 2008 so interesting is that we have a completely wide-open field in the age of totally democratized primaries,” said presidential historian Gil Troy, a transplanted New Yorker who works at Montreal’s McGill University.

Troy said the lack of any incumbents could lead to wild swings of voter sentiment on both sides and an unpredictable campaign. “To have that kind of chaos on both sides is really quite destabilizing,” he said.

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