The race for president is already on

 

Washington, D.C. — It's not too early to start thinking about the 2008 presidential elections. It's too late.

At least as far as the Democratic nomination goes. At least according to the Democratic insiders here in that fabled land known as Inside-the-Beltway.

"It's going to be Hillary-Bayh, Hillary-Warner, maybe even Hillary-Obama," said one of them, echoing the assessment of several others. "Everybody else is running for vice president."

Thus the conventional wisdom. Hillary Rodham Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. Most of the other names bandied about, such as Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana or Barak Obama of Illinois, Govs. Mark Warner of Virginia or Bill Richardson of New Mexico, are running, if they are running, for the second spot on the ticket.

A qualification or two. Obama is not even talking about running. He just got here. And "everybody else" would not accept second place. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, for instance, who is acting very much like a fellow who'd like to try again, presumably would not settle for anything less than the presidential nomination. Nor would former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina be likely to be the first person ever to accept a second veep nomination.

Setting aside these quibbles, the fellow quoted above was presenting an accurate version of what Democratic insiders think. And you know what? They might be right. For all the battering it takes, the conventional wisdom is usually right. That's how it gets to be conventional.

Not long ago, political insiders thought Sen. Clinton would not be able to win the general election. She was considered too divisive. Then came a Gallup Poll indicating that 53 percent of the people would consider voting for her. That's not a huge majority. Nor did the small majority actually say they would vote for her, just that they wouldn't necessarily not vote for her. But there went the "unelectable" argument.

Besides, the argument that Ms. Clinton would not be nominated because "The Democrats" feared she'd lose is fundamentally flawed. There is no such thing as "The Democrats," defined as an entity that can create or stop a presidential candidate. A candidate wins the nomination by winning primaries, and most primary voters choose the candidate they like, not a strategic ploy. If most Democratic primary voters like Hillary Clinton, she'll get nominated.

So both the polls and the pols say Clinton's a cinch. As indeed she would be if only some actual voters were part of this mix. They are not and will not be for at least another 54 months.

In politics, three weeks is an eternity. Fifty-four months is infinite.

Furthermore, despite all this talk about changing the primary schedule, the very first voters will almost surely again be those in Iowa and New Hampshire. Those voters have a tradition of not doing what the political insiders say they are going to do.

So it is entirely possible for some Bayh, Biden, Warner or Richardson to pull off an upset using the established formula: Organize, organize, organize, and get hot at the end. Richardson, a savvy Westerner who has staked out a position as a booster of alternative energy, seems to be considering the possibility. He spent a couple of days in New Hampshire recently talking to Democratic leaders. That's the first step in organizing.

Then the calendar does come into play, because there will probably be changes after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. One possible change is an early eight-state Rocky Mountain regional primary. That would be an advantage for Richardson if (a very big if) he is the one who pulls off that upset, or even if he just does "better than expected" in Iowa and/or New Hampshire. Those Rocky Mountain states are chock full of Hispanic voters likely to support the nation's only Hispanic governor.

Richardson does have some problems. Despite an impressive resume as former UN ambassador, Energy Secretary, successful free-lance diplomat, he's not widely known. And according to at least one published report, it was he who leaked the name of Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee to The New York Times in 1999. Lee was then charged with espionage, and though the charges were subsequently dropped, any Richardson connection with the case is likely to displease two important constituencies — Asian-Americans and civil libertarians.

Richardson was in Paris, and his press office did not respond when asked whether he had ever been asked about the Wen Ho Lee matter. If he has not, he will be, and if he wants to pursue the nomination, he must answer soon enough.

Jon Margolis is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He covers Washington, D.C., and lives in Barton, Vermont.