updated 10/4/2007 9:08:55 AM ET 2007-10-04T13:08:55

Imagine the scene: It’s early spring 2008. The country’s entering its sixth year of war in Iraq, while Iran and North Korea increasingly loom as nuclear menaces. Concerns of an economic recession have grown. Normally, a weary nation would turn to its president for leadership. But next year, we’ll have three.

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Even more fascinating — the two unelected ones (Rudy Giuliani, perhaps, and Hillary Clinton) will be charting a dramatically different course than the one counting down the days until he leaves the White House. (And I’m not even including the former one, who also could return to the national stage.)

When he selected a running mate in 2000 who said he’d never run to succeed him, George W. Bush may have known he’d face his eighth year in office without an heir apparent on the campaign trail charged to defend his policies. But Bush couldn’t have foreseen two other realities: One, his popularity, credibility and influence would fall to record lows. And two, dozens of states would force the presidential primary calendar to jump weeks ahead of its traditional schedule, forcing both parties to choose nominees before the last snow melts in New Hampshire.

Under this scenario Bush will still reign as commander in chief, but he’ll effectively be forced to share the national stage with two “co-presidents,” both of whom are likely to enjoy vastly more public support than he will. A president, with no pulpit.

It’s a potentially perplexing world of uncharted waters, but it’s one that current frontrunners from both parties are already preparing to confront.

Aura of inevitability
Almost 100 days before the first votes are cast in Iowa, there’s an aura of inevitability developing throughout the White House campaign: Eight years after the New York Senate race that never made it to prime time, the former mayor and the sitting senator, with varied degrees of caution, are starting to embrace post-primary strategies that rely on clinching their parties’ nods, not in the January primaries and caucuses, but in the national Feb. 5 Super Tuesday. With that in mind, both have positioned themselves in ways they hope will serve them well as they court a general-election audience.

Clinton, for example, softened her antiwar stance recently, strategically backing a Senate resolution that recognized the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist state, a move Democratic critics like John Edwards said escalated tensions with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and bolstered a charge led by some conservatives for invading Iran.

It was a sense of confidence this week that led Giuliani to shrug off the scolding of the St. Louis Archbishop, who said he would refuse to serve him communion because of his support for abortion rights. “Maybe people of faith can respect someone who’s honest with them. With me, you know what you’re going to get. I mean, I explain to you who I am. I tell you who I am. You can figure out the areas you agree, the areas you disagree. It’s not like five different positions on every issue,” Giuliani said Wednesday in New Hampshire, referring to both the archbishop and Mitt Romney.

Also, according to a memo strategically leaked by his campaign’s strategy director, Giuliani aides believe he would put a host of blue states in play next fall, including New Jersey, Wisconsin, California and Pennsylvania – more than enough electoral votes to offset a Democratic win in Ohio.

It is, of course, safe these days to assume the New Yorkers’ frontrunner status.

Daunting leads for Clinton
Despite 15 years of baggage that was widely expected to shackle her, Clinton enjoys increasingly daunting leads in national polls and posted, for the first time, a larger three-month fundraising total than Barack Obama — both in dollars and donors. In what’s virtually a no-lose exercise for them, Republicans have started looking past each other to attack Clinton, a ploy that rallies their conservative base while doing little to jeopardize her support among Democrats.

While Giuliani’s perch is more tenuous, the apparent fizzle of Fred Thompson’s campaign has removed one major hurdle from his path. (On the other hand, Giuliani can no longer count on Thompson to split the conservative vote with Romney). More importantly, new polls this week show him leading nationwide and competitive in early states. Giuliani’s status in early states is particularly compelling if you consider this eye-popping number: According to TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG, Romney has run more than 10,000 TV ads (counting each spot individually) while Giuliani has run a grand total of ... zero. Imagine how his poll numbers could improve once he starts to frame the debate in those early states.

How will the country adapt to the high-profile presence of three “presidents”? That’s where it really gets interesting.

If Giuliani does win the GOP nomination, the Republican Party will undergo a dramatic evolution and, perhaps, a rebirth. While Giuliani has expended some energy during the primary burnishing his conservative creds, his strategy director’s memo confirms his intention to shift aggressively back to the center by next fall. Such a move would put him repeatedly at odds with the Bush White House, for whom conservatives have become his only remaining source of reliable support.

For Clinton, the face-off could be even more dramatic, especially considering their differing approaches to Iraq and the expected presence on the trail of her most prominent surrogate, Bush’s predecessor. That might not be a bad thing for Clinton’s candidacy: A new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that two-thirds of Americans approve of the job he did while he was in office—virtually the reverse of Bush’s current approval rating, which stands at 33 percent, and more than half are comfortable with the idea of him returning to the White House.

How will the three-headed monster govern, and to what end? Stay tuned.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.


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