Regular Americans groan and ask "Already?" when they hear about candidates visiting Iowa and New Hampshire two years before those states begin the next presidential nominating process. Imagine what they'd say if they knew how early the White House race really begins.
Truth is, the 2008 contest has been underway for nearly six months, having begun right after Election Day 2004. And while most of the fundraising and barnstorming could still be called preliminary, the presidential calculations of potential candidates are already shaping congressional debates and decisions.
Presidential cycles have accelerated, in large part because candidates must raise so much more money to be considered competitive.
Two decades ago, a candidate who could raise a few million dollars in the year before the first primary could still be taken seriously if he already had significant name recognition. Ten years later, Republican Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas was the Big Money candidate because he raised $20 million before the first primary.
Now, even an upstart such as Democrat Howard Dean in 2004 raises far more than Gramm ever did. Meanwhile, the frontrunners think in terms of piling up nine figures (and that's before you count federal matching funds). So the money chase never really stops; it only changes tempo.
The 2008 race is also special in that both parties are starting from scratch. The party in the White House has been able to nominate a sitting president or vice president to head its ticket in every cycle back through 1956. But if we take Cheney at his Shermanesque word ("If nominated I will not run"), there will be no such anointed head in 2008. To find another case where neither the president nor the vice president even tried for the nomination, you have to go back a full century to 1908, when both President Theodore Roosevelt and Vice President Charles Fairbanks took themselves out of the running.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has said he is leaving the Senate after 2006, and his presidential interest has been no secret. When the Tennessean led the Senate into the swamp of the Terri Schiavo case in March, he may have had many motivations — but surely one was minding his own presidential business. Whatever his reaction to the facts of the case as a doctor, Frist was clearly responding to the intense feelings it produced — including those of religious pro-life advocates he needs to court for 2008.
Frist is a man of science and business whose church affiliation is with the mainline Presbyterians. So he has his work cut out for him when it comes to winning over fervidly conservative evangelicals. These people of strong faith have played an increasingly important part in Republican nomination fights in Iowa, South Carolina, Virginia and other states that come up early in the nominating process.
The Schiavo case is no longer news, but Frist is still under pressure from social conservatives incensed at the federal judiciary. On one hand, Frist the mainstream candidate has said he supports an independent judiciary, distancing himself from its most outspoken critics. But Frist the determined conservative has also promised to get an up-or-down vote on all of President Bush's nominees to the federal courts — including the appeals courts and the Supreme Court.
This year, the president has re-nominated 10 appeals court nominees who had run aground on Democratic filibusters during his first term. The Democrats are expected to do it again, and conservatives want Frist to put a stop to it. Unless he can broker a last-minute compromise, Frist will have to use what he calls "the constitutional option."
This is a procedural move barring the filibuster on judicial nominations, a change Frist may attempt with just 50 votes (and the tie-breaking support of Vice President Dick Cheney). Democrats call this "the nuclear option" because they say it will trigger a nuclear response — delays that blow up everything else on the Senate's agenda.
But Frist has committed himself, and the activists are holding him to his word. Most now expect Frist to make his move the first time Democrats mount a judicial filibuster — probably later this month or early next. The risks are high, and perceptions of Frist's effectiveness as a leader could suffer. But Frist the presidential candidate must also keep an eye on his rivals for the nomination, lest he be flanked and forced to the sideline early. Among these rivals may be three Senate colleagues who are favorites of the religious conservatives: Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Sam Brownback of Kansas and George Allen of Virginia. All three support the use of the nuclear option.
At the same time, other potential 2008 candidates in the Senate are maneuvering on Frist's opposite flank. One is Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the sometime maverick who won New Hampshire's GOP primary in 2000. McCain has said he will not support the nuclear option. A frequent McCain ally in the party, Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, has said he is undecided on the nuclear option — while he continues to mull his own career options for 2008.
Republicans are not the only ones affected by the scent of 2008 in the air. It's just that the Democrats have so little to say about where the government is going these days that their machinations seem less noteworthy.
But when you look, you notice things. Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York has recently made overtures to the kind of voters who said "moral issues" were most important to them in the 2004 election. Like every move she makes, this one was analyzed in terms of her prospects in 2008. So universal is the expectation of her candidacy that some observers think she should leave the Senate after one term — not because she could not win another in 2006, but because she needs to focus on the White House full-time starting now.
Over in New Jersey, the wealthy liberal Sen. Jon Corzine is closing in on the nomination for governor. This would enable Corzine to escape the Senate curse on presidential candidates and run as a governor in 2008 or later.
It's also interesting that Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, who has been getting The Mention lately, no longer votes for every cabinet nominee. Feingold was willing to vote for John Ashcroft as attorney general in 2001 (when 42 other Democrats said no), saying a president was entitled to his choice. But Feingold voted against Alberto Gonzalez for the same office in 2005, and he is expected to vote against John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations. Is the unpredictable Feingold worrying less about Wisconsin in his third term and more about partisan Democrats who take part in presidential primaries?