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An utterly reckless preview of the 2008 election

NEW YORK--If I knew who was going win the presidency next year, I wouldn't tell you. I'd place a bet. Political handicapping is a mug's game, as I demonstrated in 2004 when I declared Howard Dean a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination. Even so, I've received so many requests for my dimestore Nostradamus act that I'm taking this week off from my usual policy of prognostication avoidance to call the 2008 race.

Start with a fact: If the last party primary were held today, Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani would be the nominees. In the general election, I buy the latest WNBC/Marist College poll, which finds Clinton trouncing Giuliani by five points (48 to 43).

To look at the Rubik's Cube of political polls differently, Clinton would beat any of the current crop of Republican contenders. However, Barack Obama--now running second for the Democratic nomination--would lose to either Giuliani or John McCain. And John Edwards, the number three Democrat, would defeat either leading GOP contender.

Standard CYA caveat: 18 months is an eternity in politics. Anything can and will happen between now and November '08: another 9/11, impeachment, a plague of Madagascar hissing cockroaches. Just so we're clear: I'm talking some serious smack. Anyway ...

No one knows it yet, but the real frontrunners are John Edwards and Mitt Romney.

The races for both party nominations shape up with remarkable similarity. The frontrunners (Clinton and McCain) are battle-hardened warhorses who've patiently waited their turn for the brass ring. The runners-up (Obama and Giuliani) are charismatic, ideologically ambiguous and relative novices to national politics. Both number threes (Edwards and Romney) are wealthy, in-tune ideological chameleons (North Carolina liberal, Massachusetts conservative) and radiate Martin Sheen-like central-casting telegenicism.

In both contests, the number threes are keeping their powder dry, taking advantage of their lower poll rankings--which leaves them free to finesse their stump speeches outside the media spotlight--to hone and finesse messages that excite their parties' bases while reaching out to swing voters. Their plan is to appear dignified, above the fray, and save money on advertising while watching numbers one and two beat each other into overexposed pulps. Clinton cancels Obama; McCain cancels Giuliani. The number threesthen step in and seize the nomination by default.

I think it'll work.

Of course, each individual candidate brings his and her own unique set of strengths and weaknesses to the calculus. McCain has managed to pull off one of the most spectacular flameouts ever, destroying the "straight-talking" "maverick" persona he created in 2000 with years of toadying to George W. Bush. As the American people have increasingly turned against the Iraq War, McCain has insisted on sending even more troops. He's always had a loopy temper, but recent comments about Osama bin Laden--"We will bring him to justice. I will follow him to the gates of hell"--has to make us wonder whether Mr. Comb-Over is poised to become our second Alzheimer's president, or way past his expiration date.

Whoever told former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani to tell an audience of Southern Baptist conservatives that he still favors gay rights and gun control and is pro-choice on abortion deserves a raise. Mr. 9/11 put himself ahead on the issue of his liberalism and came across as brave and consistent: "You have a right to evaluate this in figuring out if you can support me, and at what level you can support me." Good stuff. Yet I concur with the conventional wisdom that the GOP base won't go for it. "The history of the Republican presidential nominating process, going back to John Anderson or Arlen Specter to name a few, suggests that that kind of dialogue and that kind of approach has not proved successful," notes former Republican National Committee chairman Richard Bond.

Giuliani's bid serves mainly to weaken McCain.

What about Romney's major perceived weakness, his faith? A September '06 Gallup poll found that only 29 percent of Americans think the country is ready for a Mormon president. But people thought the same thing about JFK, a Catholic. Many of those who think "the country" isn't ready might well be willing to vote for a Mormon themselves. Abstract bigotry frequently dissipates when one considers a specific candidate--especially when other options don't appeal.

Given the choice between libbie Giuliani, loony McCain and Reagan conservative-come-lately Romney, Republican primary voters will pick Mitt.

Ever so slightly over to the left, Democrats are rapidly concluding that it isn't really 1960 all over again--charisma and cuteness probably won't be enough to win. Barack Obama has mastered the art of the platitude, but in a country as racist as the U.S., a black guy has to bring the whole package--experience, gravitas, actual opinions--to deny the soft bigots a reason to vote against him. Besides, post-Bush, voters are looking for substance over rhetoric. "I'm black, he's black" endorsements by Oprah Winfrey and Newark's African-American mayor add to nervous whites' perception that he's another divider, not a uniter. Which is why Hillary is beating him senseless.

Of the top contenders, Hillary Clinton remains the most formidable. Publishing houses promise a stack of hatchet-job tell-alls about the former first lady, but it's a safe bet that they won't have anything new to reveal. From Whitewater to Vince Foster, her life is an open book. Most importantly, she won't make a mistake. She's battle-tested, disciplined and surrounded by a menacing staff machine. It's Hillary's to lose--and I think she will, because even her supporters aren't thrilled about her.

Clinton and Obama will split the politically correct "America's first _____ president" vote. Democratic primary voters will make them suffer for their wishy-washy stances on Iraq. John Edwards, on the other hand, is saying the right things in all the right ways. Like Clinton, he voted for the war--but he's stepped up and apologized. Now he's calling for Americans to do something unexpected but exactly in line with popular sentiment: steal the militaristic fervor of the Memorial Day holiday away from the Republicans. "Each of us has a responsibility as Americans, a duty to our troops and to each other, to do all we can to support the troops and end this war," he said, calling for antiwar displays alongside the flag.

I disagree with analysts who view Elizabeth Edwards' public battle against cancer as a political weakness. To the contrary, the couple's honesty and courage in dealing with the disease has humanized them. We have no idea who Clinton or Obama really are. But most Americans know people like the Edwardses. That matters.

Finally, concerning the general prospects of the Democratic vs. Republican parties, here's my final foolhardy and almost certainly inaccurate prediction. If there are still more than a skeleton force of troops stationed in Iraq by Election Day 2008, Democrats will win the presidency and pick up seats (but not veto-proof majorities) in both the House and Senate.

Ted Rall is the author of the new book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.

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