John McCain, the Arizona Republican widely seen as a front-runner for his party's presidential nomination in 2008, has moved closer to a White House run, saying he was setting up an exploratory committee, and that he would take a final decision early in 2007.
"I am going to sit down with my family over the holidays and make that decision," the four-term senator, who unsuccessfully ran against George Bush in 2000, told NBC's Meet the Press yesterday.
He did not say exactly when the committee - a legally required precursor of a White House bid - would be formally established. But he noted that it was "part of the process". Whatever happens, he added, "the important thing is that we will be prepared".
With his reputation as a maverick and blunt-spoken teller of truth to power, Mr McCain has a proven appeal to independents and many Democrats. He has also of late moved to shore up support among the Christian right, a constituency vital to success in the primaries - as he learnt to his cost six years ago.
Every sign thus far is that he plans to run. There are, however, significant question marks about a McCain candidacy. One is his advocacy of yet more troops being sent to Iraq, at a moment when the war has never been less popular. The other is his age. If elected, Mr McCain, who is a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, would be 72 when sworn in in January 2009, making him the oldest incoming president ever. He also has a history of melanoma skin cancer, meaning that his health would be a matter of intense scrutiny.
On the Republican side, after the defeat and political self-destruction of the once-fancied Senator George Allen of Virginia at last week's midterm election, the Arizona senator's most dangerous rival may be Mitt Romney, the outgoing governor of Massachusetts, who is showing every sign of a presidential bid.
Other possibilities include the former mayor of New York Rudolph Giuliani, and the outgoing Senate majority leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee - and conceivably even Mr Giuliani's successor as mayor, Michael Bloomberg.
The Democratic contest also became slightly clearer yesterday. Joe Biden, senator for Delaware, confirmed on ABC's This Week programme that he planned to run in 2008, but did not say when he would take a final decision. In the meantime, Mr Biden is expected to become chairman of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee when the new Democrat-controlled Senate convenes in January. He advocates a loose federal structure for Iraq. But another senator, the liberal Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, who has been a strong opponent of the Iraq war from the beginning, ruled himself out of the race - as did Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat poised to take over as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "I value my marriage too much for that," he joked.
The favourite - albeit undeclared - remains Hillary Clinton, flush with money after her untaxing re-election to the Senate from New York last week, and with a powerful organisation already in place.
But a threat has emerged in the person of Barack Obama, the wildly popular first-term senator from Illinois, who has been promoting a political memoir, The Audacity of Hope, that in part resembles a campaign manifesto. Mr Obama, born of a Kenyan father and Kansan mother, recently admitted that he was mulling a bid. A decision could come soon, he indicated. Other senators who might join the 2008 contest are the defeated 2004 nominee John Kerry, and Evan Bayh, the conservative Democrat from Indiana. All but certain to run is John Edwards, Mr Kerry's running mate four years ago.Reuse content