THE UNEXPECTEDLY STRONG CHALlenges that Bill Bradley and John McCain are making for presidential nominations show just how unpredictable American politics can be. Six months ago, Al Gore and George W. Bush were supposed to have the nominations locked up. But when you stop to think about it, the really surprising political development has been Bush's meteoric rise to front-runner status for the White House.
Six years ago, pundits were already touting Gore, Bradley, and McCain as presidential contenders. But Bush? A laughable idea. In 1994 he was part owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team and given almost no chance of beating Texas Governor Ann Richards, much less capturing the job his father lost in 1992.
Meanwhile, a lot of party pros in '94 were talking up the national-ticket prospects of California state treasurer Kathleen Brown. Remember her? She was given a good chance of ousting Pete Wilson to follow her father, Pat, and brother, Jerry, into the governor's mansion. But it was Bush who upset an incumbent, not Brown. So he stands within grasp of the White House, while she has fallen into political oblivion.
Given such shifts in the political landscape, it's hazardous to make long-term political forecasts. Nevertheless, here are some of the political novas the pundits are keeping an eye on as potential candidates in 2008.
THE KENNEDY NAME IS STILL MAGIC IN Democratic circles, and it could work for Maryland Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend or her cousin Congressman Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island. Townsend, 48--Robert Kennedy's eldest daughter--may well be in her second term as governor come 2008.
Kennedy, 32, serving his third congressional term, is still young, and he has a troubled past that includes time in a drug-rehabilitation clinic. But he has the ambition and, as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the opportunity to collect political IOUs.
Republicans might see yet another Bush enter the White House sweepstakes. Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who turns 47 in February, is taller, smarter, and more conservative than his older brother. Jeb would have a better shot if George stumbles in 2000. Should big brother win two terms in the White House, Bush fatigue no doubt would kill Jeb's chances.
Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo, 42, has his eye on Dad's old job in Albany as a steppingstone to the White House. Mario could never bring himself to make the plunge into presidential politics, but Andrew apparently hasn't inherited that trait.
The résumé of Indiana's freshman Democratic senator, Evan Bayh, 44, is similar to Al Gore's: son of a respected US senator, grew up in Washington, seems to have been plotting his course to the White House since childhood. Former governor Bayh has succeeded in a Republican state by steering a centrist course.
Three-term Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., 34, is one of the most liberal members of Congress. That may be a political liability today, but it could be a plus in eight years if the stock-market bubble bursts and triggers a depression. The Illinois congressman's seminary training and experience watching his father sermonize might inspire a desperate electorate.
Jesse Jr. might face some competition for the liberal vote from Harold Ford Jr., who succeeded his father, Harold Sr., as congressman from Tennessee in 1996. If youthfulness counts, Ford will have an edge: He'll be 38 in 2008.
THE STATEHOUSE IS THE BEST ROUTE TO the White House, and many governors entertain the notion. But only a few run. In 2008, that group might include Republicans George Pataki of New York and Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania--assuming that one of them hasn't already become vice president; each is mentioned as a Bush running mate this year. Now in their second term, both are 54, have proven records as moderates, and are pro-choice, a stance that may hurt their chances of getting the GOP nomination but makes them more appealing in a general election.
On the Democratic side, two moderate politicians are attracting good reviews. One is Georgia's new governor, Roy Barnes, 51. If fellow Georgian Jimmy Carter could go from obscurity to president in just two years, why not Barnes in eight?
Another intriguing possibility is Washington's first-term governor, Gary Locke, 50. The son of Chinese immigrants, Locke says he has no interest in moving to that other Washington. But he may become the first Asian-American to make it onto a national ticket.
IT IS SAID THAT EVERY MEMBER OF THE Senate sees a future president in the mirror, even though recent history suggests that it's a poor launching pad.
Among Republicans, experts see potential in Nebraska's freshman senator, Chuck Hagel, 53, the first Republican the state has elected to the Senate since 1972. He's an independent thinker, telegenic, a self-made millionaire, and a war hero.
Freshman Gordon Smith of Oregon, a 47-year-old former frozen-foods king, is another attractive candidate who has proven to be moderate and bipartisan. He would be the first Mormon to serve on a national ticket.
Pundits see a bright future for onetime Virginia governor George Allen, namesake of the former Washington Redskins coach, if he captures Democrat Chuck Robb's Senate seat in 2000 as expected.
And don't overlook Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, whose craving for higher office is second to none. She's frustrated that the likely nomination of fellow Texan George W. will keep her off the ticket this year. Hutchison, 56, a solid conservative except for her pro-choice position on abortion, is likely to run for governor if Bush wins.
Democrats have a comer in the Senate's number-one heartthrob, freshman John Edwards, 46, of North Carolina. Smart as well as charming and strikingly handsome, he amassed a fortune as a trial attorney. Edwards has a bright future if he can break a state jinx when he faces reelection in 2004: No one has been reelected to that seat since Jesse Helms won the state's other Senate seat in 1972.
If voters haven't forever sworn off pols from Arkansas, they'll find an appealing candidate in Senator Blanche Lincoln, 39, a former Washington lobbyist and two-term member of Congress who bucked an anti-Clinton tide in his home state in 1998. It's a safe bet that women will no longer be denied a place on one of the major party's national tickets by 2008, and Lincoln makes the shortlist.
If all the baby boomers running for president become a turnoff, Connecticut's two-term senator, Joseph Lieberman, may emerge as an "elder" candidate. An introspective moderate who will be 66 in 2008, Lieberman earned the "conscience of the Senate" title for his eloquent rebuke of Clinton over the President's affair with Monica Lewinsky. If successful, Lieberman would be the first Jewish chief executive.
Two prospective senators who can't be overlooked are Hillary Clinton, if she wins her New York Senate race this fall, and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, if he knocks her off.
SEEKING THE PRESIDENCY FROM THE House makes the odds even longer than running as a senator: Just ask Ohio Republican John Kasich. But the ambition shines no less bright for a handful of congressmen, who may have to seek higher offices on their way to the White House.
California Republican Tom Campbell, 47, a former Stanford law professor, is eyeing a Senate seat. If he runs for president, he'll have to fend off a challenge from another 47-year-old California Republican, Chris Cox. Many lawmakers consider Cox the smartest member of Congress. His main drawback: So does he.
Texas Republican Henry Bonilla, 46, a former television news reporter and producer, has been mentioned as the first Hispanic who might make a GOP national ticket, and former football star J.C. Watts, 42, of Oklahoma is one of the few African-Americans in the party who could rise to national prominence.
South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, 44, gave his career a boost by being the only Republican on the House Judiciary Committee to come out of the Clinton impeachment hearings with his reputation enhanced.
TWO DEMOCRATS WORTH TRACKING ARE Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, 51, and Miami Mayor Alex Penelas, 39. Both are attractive Hispanic candidates who harbor higher political ambitions.
Then there are the citizen-politicians who would be president--billionaires, star athletes, actors, and other celebrities who reject the idea that you have to work your way up to the top job. Actor/director Tim Robbins, a political junkie, may pick up where Warren Beatty left off. And actor/singer Will Smith, who hosted the millennium bash on the Mall, has hinted that he might run for president. Then there's just-retired basketball all-star Charles Barkley, a declared Republican, who might do for Alabama what Jesse Ventura did for Minnesota. Michael Jordan, anyone?
The next Eisenhowerlike military hero could be NATO Commander Wesley Clark, who is said to be more inclined to run than Colin Powell has been.
Finally, there are bound to be some deep-pocket candidates who'll follow Steve Forbes's example. Look for one of the hot tech gazillionaires to throw his mouse into the arena--say Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com. Think of the millions of thankful shareholders who would vote for him--assuming that Amazon turns a profit by 2008. Ridiculous? Perhaps. But who would have imagined that a buffoon like Donald Trump would get so much attention?
In politics, the bizarre is increasingly commonplace.