updated 10/8/2007 9:01:43 PM ET 2007-10-09T01:01:43

To paraphrase Henny Youngman, Sen. John McCain’s favorite comedian: Take this nomination… please!

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The race for the top of the Republican presidential ticket in 2008 has been under way for more than a year, and there already is a long list of provisional, semi- and former-frontrunners: McCain, Mitt Romney (in Iowa and New Hampshire) and Rudy Giuliani.

Now Fred Thompson is ambling into view, which makes him the top target for questioners and rivals at Tuesday’s CNBC/MSNBC/Wall Street Journal debate in Dearborn, Michigan. Before this race is over I expect to see Mike Huckabee get his 15 minutes, too – not to mention Ron Paul, whom I can envision running amok on the track at any time.

In this odd and urgent campaign season, the political parties seem to be exchanging operational identities.

For decades, the GOP generally was the “royalist” party, in which candidates waited their turn for coronation. With few exceptions, the GOP selected its leaders like the Chamber of Commerce: second vice president becomes first vice president, etc. Nixon begat Ford begat Reagan beat Bush begat Dole begat Bush II. Also, for 30 years or so, the party knew where it stood on the big issues.

Video: Clinton's husband:  Asset or liability? The Democrats, by contrast, were the people of the never-ending putsch and pull, oscillating between outsider, protest candidates (McGovern and Carter) and not-quite-establishment candidates (Dukakis and Kerry) in a party that insisted that it had no real establishment, or that claimed to hate the one it had.

Ideologically, Democrats tended to tear each other to pieces on everything from trade to race to war. It took the political genius of Bill Clinton to tie it all together for eight years.

But now the party roles are upside down, or seem to be so far.

The Democrats are the party of Regular Order, at least judging by the latest national, Iowa, and New Hampshire polls.

Talk about royalist: Hillary Clinton’s initial entre to national politics was (and, in the eyes of many, still is) the fact that she is the wife of a successful former president. She is not a prohibitive favorite by any means, but she could not have consolidated her frontrunner status in an earlier Democratic era – the one that existed before George Bush and Dick Cheney united the country against the White House. Maybe Barack Obama will unseat Clinton, but his manner and methods, so far, seem too respectful for an old-fashioned Democratic brawl. 

Video: Thompson's slip-ups on the stump The Republicans, meanwhile, are a Democratic mess. This time they are the ones talking about long shot, slingshot scenarios involving Iowa and New Hampshire. They are the ones bitterly divided over issues, particularly immigration, but also government spending (and debt) and what to say, if anything, about the president, his policies and personal appeal, or lack thereof. They are a pudding without a theme.

What happened?

Well, we don’t have Vice President Cheney to kick around, of course. Had he run for the nomination, the GOP really would have resembled the old divided Democrats. McCain tried to get himself crowned heir apparent early, but failed. And the old policy certitudes, dating to Reagan’s time, have been blown apart by post-Katrina’s incompetence, a war gone wrong, a porous border and a budget gone bust. “We thought we’d have parallel coronations, Hillary and McCain, and it didn’t happen,” said Rich Galen, who is now handling spin duties for Thompson. “This isn’t a coronation this time, at least on our side of the aisle.”

Is Thompson the one to salvage this mess? You have to wonder whether a candidate his handlers insist on calling “Fred” (isn’t that the name of a low-fare airline?) can carry the load. My sense is that Thompson’s rivals ought to be careful about attacking him from the front. This is a guy who doesn’t scare easily, and who has been surviving in the shark-infested waters of Washington since Nixon was tapping phones.

But can he turn the GOP into its stately old self?  As an actor he’s played plenty of lawyers, but he never played a king. 

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