Longest, tightest, costliest race in history

With exactly 12 months to go, Bush is favourite but faces strongest Democrat line-up in years

On this very night, in exactly a year's time, it will all be over. After a campaign that has been under way almost from the very moment George Bush entered the White House in January 2001, we will finally know (barring, of course, another Florida) whether he will be in office for a further four years - or, as much of the world devoutly wishes, whether a Democrat will replace him in the most powerful office in history. The race will be long and unprecedentedly expensive. It may also be unprecedentedly exciting.

At this stage Mr Bush must be counted the favourite. But the six major contenders of the nine seeking his job add up to arguably the strongest Democratic presidential field in recent history. And of the six, any one could prevail.

In a normal year, the current front-runner, Howard Dean, would probably be the clear favourite. He is strongly placed in Iowa, whose caucuses kick off the election season in a matter of weeks, and even more strongly in New Hampshire, where the first primary was until recently an unfailing presidential kingmaker.

No less important, he has a handsome lead in the "invisible primary" of fundraising - an even more reliable pointer to ultimate success than Iowa and New Hampshire. In the third quarter of this year alone, thanks in large measure to his pioneering use of the internet, Mr Dean raised some $17m (£10m), as much as his four closest rivals combined.

In the 10 contested party races since 1980, the candidate who has raised the most money in the pre-election year has won the nomination nine times. Even candidates who led the first Gallup poll of election year have prevailed only eight times.

But 2004 will not be normal. For one thing, the myth of New Hampshire has crumbled, after both Bill Clinton and Mr Bush captured the White House despite failing to win its primary. Moreover, the leisurely primary canters of yesteryear are a distant memory. This campaign will be a headlong dash, a political Grand National in which every fence is crammed into the home straight.

As a result, Iowa on 19 January and New Hampshire on 27 January will matter less. A week later, candidates can remedy poor performances there with a decent showing in the six states with primaries on 3 February. Four days after that Michigan votes, followed on 10 February by Virginia and Tennessee.

The climax will come on 2 March, just six weeks after Iowa's caucuses. In campaigns past, the synchronised southern state primaries in early March were known as "Super Tuesday". But that day in 2004 will see a veritable "Cosmic Tuesday", embracing the three richest prizes of California, New York and Texas, as well as Ohio, Maryland, Massachusetts and others.

It would be astonishing if everything were not settled then - which is just as intended by Democratic elders, determined to give the eventual nominee as much time as they can to concentrate on beating Mr Bush.

It is still possible that Mr Dean will win Iowa and New Hampshire so conclusively that his momentum will be unstoppable. But Wesley Clark and John Edwards lead in South Carolina, a key 3 February state. Joe Lieberman is ahead in the polls in two more of them, Arizona and Delaware. Tucked in on the rails almost everywhere is John Kerry - and who can write off Richard Gephardt, if he pulls off a win in Iowa and then in his native Missouri?

"Events, dear boy, events," was how Harold McMillan once characterised a politician's greatest problem. But, Iraq notwithstanding, the odds right now are that Mr Bush will prevail 12 months hence. Long before then, however, the selection of his opponent could provide enough drama to fill any presidential year.

Enter the contenders - and the field is wide open

George Bush

Age 57. Former baseball club owner, Governor of Texas 1994-2000. Sworn in as the 43rd President on 20 January 2001.

Main selling points: He walks tall against the terrorists, he toppled Saddam Hussein and his tax cuts are hauling the US economy out of recession.

Main problems: He has alienated most of the rest of the world, led America into the morass of Iraq and created the biggest trade and budget deficits in US history.

Chance of success: 7/10.

Howard Dean

Age 54. Governor of Vermont 1991-2001. Favours balancing the budget and repealing the Bush tax cuts.

Main selling points: He's an outsider, untainted by Washington's ways. Democratic activists love his visceral opposition to the Iraq war and his lacerating criticism of Bush.

Main problems: Dean has no national experience. His anger and intensity may not go down well in a general election. US voters usually plump for the nice guy.

Chance of success: 6/10.

Joe Lieberman

Age 61. Connecticut Senator, elected 1988. Vice-Presidential running mate of Al Gore in 2000. A devout Jew, he is fiercely pro-Israel and a hawk on Iraq.

Main selling points: Strong name recognition and mellow style that appeals to independents. "I know I can beat George Bush, because Al Gore and I did in 2000."

Main problems: Perceived as part of a Washington-based Democratic old guard. Democrats seeking a Henry V to rally the troops before Agincourt should look elsewhere.

Chance of success: 5/10.

John Kerry

Age 59. Massachusetts Senator, elected 1984, and hero-turned-critic of the Vietnam war.

Main selling points: Foreign policy expertise, all-round gravitas and his record as a real Navy pilot, in contrast to the dress-up Top Gun currently in the White House.

Main problems: A remoteness that is easily seen as haughtiness, and an air of being too programmed and too cautious. And why did he vote for the war if he opposes Bush's Iraq policies so strongly now?

Chance of success: 5/10.

Wesley Clark

Age 58. Four-star general and former Nato supreme commander, in charge of the 1999 Kosovo war.

Main selling points: Another political outsider, but with massive defence and security policy experience. A southerner, he might break the Republicans' stranglehold on the region.

Main problems: Political inexperience, erratic judgement and a capacity to rub up his peers the wrong way. Clark was effectively sacked from the Nato job. Will he implode again?

Chance of success: 5/10.

Richard Gephardt

Age 62. Former House Democratic leader, elected to Congress in 1976. Iraq hawk, with close ties to labour.

Main selling points: Experience (he's already run for President, in 1988), Midwestern decency and common sense, and a reputation as the best machine politician in the business.

Main problems: He's yesterday's man, who's been around for ever. He's boring. Like Kerry, Gephardt has trouble explaining why he voted to give Bush wide war powers last year.

Chance of success: 3/10.

John Edwards

Age 50. North Carolina Senator, elected 1998. Formerly a trial lawyer.

Main selling points: He's young, he's pretty and he's southern, with a squeaky clean private life - another Bill Clinton, but without the baggage.

Main problems: He's too young, too pretty and too lightweight. And he too faces the Lieberman, Kerry and Gephardt dilemma. If you're so critical of the Iraq mess now, why did you vote for war in the first place?

Chance of success: 3/10.

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