The Republican presidential race is so unsettled that some party officials are openly talking of a scenario that seemed almost unthinkable until now: the first contested GOP convention in 60 years.
Even if Republicans choose a nominee before they convene in Minneapolis-St. Paul on Sept. 1, there's a good possibility he will emerge weeks or even months after the Democratic nominee is chosen, giving Democrats an advantage in fundraising, organizing and campaigning. Congressional Republicans particularly wanted an early nominee to draw voters' attention from President Bush, whose low approval ratings could hurt the entire party in the fall.
Bush's former top political aide, Karl Rove, told Republican officials Wednesday that major challenges await "the moment our candidate secures the nomination." As if they needed reminding, Rove told those at the Republican National Committee's winter meeting, "the primaries are far from over."
Democrats also face the possibility of a long and costly battle involving Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards. But officials attending the RNC meeting said Democrats seem likely to make their choice before a clear winner emerges from the pack of four or five still-credible GOP contenders.
"The way it looks now, it could end up in the convention," Ron Schmidt, South Dakota's Republican National Committeeman, said of the party's nominating process. "It's fascinating if you're a political junkie."
'Super Tuesday' uncertainty
In the major contests so far- Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan - three different Republicans have finished first. If former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson scores the win he hopes for in South Carolina on Saturday, he would be the fourth first-place finisher. Likewise, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani could be the fifth winner in the five contests if he proves wise in picking Florida's Jan. 29 primary as his first big stand.
Politicians had long assumed the Feb. 5 "Super Tuesday" primary, involving California, New York and 22 other states, would resolve any doubts about either party's nominee. Democrats feel slightly less certain about that now, and Republicans are even more doubtful.
The GOP process could go "right up to the point that we don't have a clear candidate with enough electoral votes to win" the nomination when the conventions start, said Herbert Schoenbohm, Republican Party chairman for the Virgin Islands. That would be fine with Schoenbohm, who said he is "tired of the coronations and staged events" of recent conventions.
But a deadlocked convention could be a nightmare for the party. The Republicans' last multi-ballot convention was in 1948, when New York Gov. Thomas Dewey prevailed on the third ballot. He lost the general election to Democrat Harry S. Truman.
Wheeling and dealing for delegates
The last contested Democratic convention was in 1952, when Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson won on the third ballot. He later lost two elections to Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Contested conventions have never been kind to their eventual nominees, said G. Terry Madonna, who has studied them as a public affairs professor and pollster at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania. A deadlocked convention in either party remains unlikely, he said in an interview Wednesday, but it is more possible for Republicans.
Both parties' nominating rules have changed so dramatically since the 1950s, Madonna said, that guidelines for resolving such an impasse are far from clear. "This is something we've never had," he said.
Most convention delegates now are loyal to a given candidate, not to the party itself, he said. The Byzantine rules governing delegates' powers and obligations are nearly incomprehensible, he said. But in the end, it might not matter much.
A deadlocked nominating process would be obvious when most primaries end by early May, Madonna said, four months before the party conventions take place. Then "there will be wheeling and dealing" among the candidates and their surrogates, he said, with possible deals including a vice presidential spot for a contender willing to step aside and resolve the question.
'Four big things to do'
On Wednesday, several Republican officials said a protracted primary season might add excitement to a party that typically settles on a nominee early.
That's not the tune they were humming last summer, however, when they began worrying about potential losses at the congressional and state levels. When a likely GOP nominee emerges by early February or so, Republicans will "not have the Bush monkey on our back," Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Fla., said at the time.
Rove told party officials Wednesday that the eventual GOP presidential nominee has "four big things to do" when the intraparty battle ends. The first, he said, is to "introduce themself to the American people," who pay far less attention to campaigns than most political aficionados realize.
It was a splash of cold-water reality for party activists who don't know who their standard-bearer will be, nor when he will be chosen.