By Political Director
updated 1/17/2007 5:15:43 PM ET 2007-01-17T22:15:43
ON THE TRAIL

One of the most entrenched bits of conventional wisdom about the next presidential race is that both parties will have their nominees by Feb. 6, 2008, the day after that year's version of "Super Tuesday." It's practically guaranteed by the front-loaded calendar.

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Some (including me) actually think this race will end earlier. There are certain candidates who -- if they win the Iowa caucuses on the evening of Jan. 14 -- will likely wrap up the primary campaign that night.

But as I've learned all too often, the law of unintended consequences seems to be stronger than conventional wisdom in the world of politics. This new calendar has never been tested with two equally strong front-runners.

It's still a long time until next January's Iowa caucuses, but the formal entrances this week of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and (possibly) New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton should give rise to the notion that it's actually possible the Democratic nomination won't be settled by Feb. 6. In fact, there's a chance that the battle between these two superstars could go on to the convention. Now, before dismissing this notion as a political junkie's pipe dream, hear me out.

The GOP's nominee will be in place by then for a couple of reasons. Unlike the Democrats, Republicans award their convention delegates to hopefuls via a winner-take-all system. So while a second-place finish in a Democratic caucus or primary can score a candidate nearly 50 percent of the delegates up for grabs in a particular state, it gets a Republican presidential candidate bupkis, zero, zilch.

Also, Republican elites are simply more pragmatic than Democrats these days, and the pain from the fight between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan still lingers with some. Just look at how fast Arizona Sen. John McCain backed off of his challenge to George W. Bush in 2000. It's just not in the DNA of the pragmatic Republican elite to support the bloodbath that a protracted nomination fight would induce. Plus, given the unease Republicans have about 2008 (history seems to favor the Democratic nominee), they'll be anxious to unite quickly around the apparent winner.

But while most of the hard evidence suggests Democrats will know their presumptive nominee at the same time the Republicans secure theirs, there is a more plausible scenario for Democrats that will look a lot like it did for the party in '84. Remember, in '84, former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart and former Vice President Walter Mondale battled into June. But if Hart had had the resources early enough in the process to make the primary a fairer fight, he probably would have won.

In Clinton and Obama, the Democrats have two potentially larger-than-life figures -- something the Democrats haven't had arguably since '68 (then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey and then-Massachusetts Sen. Robert Kennedy) or '80 (then-President Jimmy Carter and Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy).

Having two front-runners this early who are already heavyweights suggests that the road to the convention in Denver could be a long one.

It's plausible that both candidates could raise between $50 million to $100 million this year. With that kind of money comes a lot of staff and the ability to survive a long campaign.

What if Clinton and Obama split first-place finishes in the first four states? (Obama wins Iowa and South Carolina; Clinton wins Nevada and New Hampshire). Normally, an outcome like this is rare, but if both candidates have momentum early, then it could happen. Had former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (D) had more money at the time, he could have gone toe-to-toe with Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in '04 following his victory in South Carolina's primary. This time, both Clinton and Obama will have the resources to withstand an early setback (assuming their grips on the top two spots hold -- a big assumption right now).

Naysayers of this scenario will argue that the media will never let a race go as long as the one in '84 did. Pressure from the media to crown a winner will be intense, but so will the temptation to keep this story alive, especially if the GOP race ends as quickly as we think it might.

There's one other reason that has me believing the long, drawn-out, delegate-by-delegate tangle is more probable than at first blush.

The Clinton vs. Obama dynamic is a battle for the long-term control of the Democratic Party. Even the makeup of their staffs shows the divide. The Clinton wing of the party is fairly well-known, from the early '92 and '96 Bill Clinton veterans to the folks who have surrounded the first lady since '98. Meanwhile, the Obama staff is largely made up of those Democrats who were never part of either Clinton's inner-circle in the 90s. Instead, Obama's team comprises veterans from the political family tree rooted in former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt. Both developed their own power centers during the Clinton years because they were neither wanted in the White House nor invited.

Every now and then, the Clintonistas and the Daschle-Gephardt folks work together, but for the most part, they have been in two different orbits of the Democratic Party. Now, they are about to square off directly by way of Mrs. Clinton and Obama.

Losing is not an option for either wing, because that would mean being in the semi-Democratic wilderness (so to speak) for as many as eight years. The folks who may feel they have the most to lose, the Clintonistas, are more likely to prolong a campaign than the folks with Obama. Obama is more likely to fold early if he consistently comes up short. But there's probably less "quit" in the Clintons than in any other Democratic family; only the Bushes on the GOP side show more political survival skills.

Those reading this piece who don't support either Clinton or Obama are probably ready to rip me to shreds, fuming with anger that I'm falling into the mainstream media trap of envisioning an outcome before it plays out. But perception turns into reality very quickly in the early stages of a presidential campaign because of resources. It's quite possible that Edwards or a couple of other candidates will get serious traction and turn this into a real three-way race. But the way the Democratic Party appears to be dividing itself into two worlds -- Clinton and Obama -- this week, the candidates not named Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama may need one of the two to make a major gaffe in order to emerge as a player.

If both Clinton and Obama live up to even 20 percent of the hype, this battle could become much longer than any of us anticipated.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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