One thing that strikes me very clearly, having watched a variety of American news channels over the last month, is that whoever wins the Democrat nomination (given that the winner will be surnamed Clinton or Obama, bearing a total meltdown, in which case it will be Edwards) is going to be the presumptive President-elect. The lion's share of the media coverage has been on the Democrat race; when it has covered those clamouring for the Republican nomination, it has often been only to highlight their side-swipes at the Democrats. Even the entry of Fred Thompson into the race hasn't significantly stepped up the attention.
(There's another reason why I think the 2008 race is the Democrats to lose, but I'll save that for another post).
John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney are all bona-fide first tier candidates, but for one reason or another they don't really excite people. McCain has struggled with the mantle of the front-runner; moreover, he has had significant political misfortune. He's a brave enough politician to take a stand that is unpopular when he thinks that he's right, but his last two stands have been disastrous.
Firstly, he threw his weight behind the troop surge when US opinion swings away from such heavy commitment; secondly, he supported an immigration reform with a plan for some illegal immigrants to gain citizenship. This may well be a policy that makes sense, but it takes only a cursory glance at the rhetoric of commentators on both right and left to realise that it is badly out of step with public opinion.
The knocks on Romney are well-known; he is trying to present himself as a social conservative when his track record suggests otherwise. This isn't helped by the fact that he comes across as your archetypal businessman, always trying to sell you something. Watching him, you always wonder what he's hiding from view.
Giuliani is the candidate who scares me the most. His political achievements are really quite miniscule, compared with the task of running the entire United States. He was reassuring on 9/11, for sure, but the task of deciding America's national response to a terrorist attack is considerably different. His polling numbers are good on issues of national security - but really, what does he know of it? I get the feeling he could shoot from the hip on foreign policy through the belief that he knows what he's doing, when the opposite is true. But while he may be the candidate with the name recognition and the candidate in poll position, I think it is fair to say the Republican base also isn't sure what to make of him. I can't recall him making the lead on the news at all in the past month.
In such a situation, then, there's the distinct possibility for an under-the-radar campaign to gather momentum with stronger than expected showings in Iowa and New Hampshire. Novelty value - in particular, the media attention that would inevitably follow - could then give a further poll boost as the candidates head for the crunch in early February.
The candidate who seems most likely to me to have this scenario play out is Mike Huckabee.
He's been slowly gaining more media attention since his second-place finish in the Iowa straw poll; the debate on Thursday saw him probably gain the most of any of the Republican candidates. His social conservative credentials are strong - a look at his website would reassure anyone with fears on that score. Yet at the same time, he's had appearances on the Daily Show and the Colbert Report in which he's been received very favourably. I distinctly recall Jon Stewart's tone of surprise in talking about his book, that it was 'full of things that I'd agree with as a liberal'. He seems to have the knack of finding the right tone.
Moreover, he has some intriguing ideas. He is calling, for example, for the scrapping of all federal income taxes, to be replaced with a national sales tax, with exemptions on all purchases up to the poverty line. I don't know whether this is a feasible plan - either in getting it past Congress or in economic terms - but it's the sort of idea that might catch the imagination, if the groundwork has been correctly laid in Iowa and New Hampshire. He'll have a long enough period to impress the ideas on the public between those campaigns and the start of February, without there being a great opportunity to pull them apart (that, of course, will come if he actually wins the nomination).
This might all be fanciful thinking - little more than the idle hopes of someone hoping for an exciting primary race. But there's conventional wisdom that Governors are better candidates for President than Senators, given the voting records that Senators pile up in their years of service, whereas Governors have the ability to campaign on the change that occurred under their watch. And in a race where none of the frontrunners really excite, in a race that has been so long that familiarity might breed contempt, there is room for someone to come up through the ranks. Could it be Huckabee?