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Leading article: After the phoney war, the real battles begin

In one way, the 2008 US presidential election seems to have been in progress for 12 or more tedious months. The skirmishing began almost as soon as the Democrats prevailed in last year's mid-term Congressional elections. Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been tracking each other across the country in pursuit of the Democratic nomination ever since.

In another way, though, it is only now that the first battles are being joined. In three weeks' time, at the Iowa caucuses, we will know the results of the first encounters with the voters and there is nothing like real voters to bring a contest to life.

This election has its peculiarities. The primaries are being held earlier than ever. Any earlier, and the Iowa caucuses would have crashed into New Year. New Hampshire follows the next week. If there are clear-cut results, the nominations for both major parties could be known before the end of the first week in February.

The 2008 election is also an election of firsts. We are watching the first woman, the first black contender and the first Mormon ever to have had a serious chance of winning a major party nomination. These "firsts" are tests of character, for the candidates and for US voters. How far will gender, race or religion dictate America's choice? The election is also the most open for decades both for the nominations and between the parties. George Bush cannot seek re-election and his Vice-President, Dick Cheney, will not run. The competition for the Republican nomination is wide open. How open is illustrated by the fluctuating fortunes of half a dozen distinctive characters, with Mike Huckabee from Arkansas, and the veteran campaigner John McCain now coming up strongly on the outside.

Almost as open, despite all the predictions, is the race in the Democratic Party. Mrs Clinton, whose success has been taken pretty much for granted since she threw her hat into the ring, has been losing ground, slowly but surely, to Mr Obama. He leads in Iowa, and some polls now have him fractionally ahead in New Hampshire, a small, predominantly white, north-eastern state that should be Mrs Clinton's natural territory.

Once upon a time, it seemed as though the 2008 election might pit Mrs Clinton against the former Mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, so providing the duel that American voters were deprived of when Mr Giuliani decided not to run against Mrs Clinton for the Senate in 2000. That would make for an exciting, absorbing and combative campaign. But with both favourites now stalling, this may not be the choice that confronts America in a little less than 11 months' time.

From this side of the Atlantic, with our four-week campaigns and our pencil-and-paper ballots, it is easy to be condescending and dismissive about the political marathon that precedes a US presidential election. The indecent amount of money that an individual must raise even to be a plausible candidate raises its own questions, as does the soundness of US voting procedures after the tied election of 2000. We might also ask why the Mid-west and the north-east should always set the tone for the primaries.

All that said, however, the rigours of the campaign remain as valid a preparation as there can be for the exigencies of the Oval Office. The voters have ample time to consider the merits of the candidates, even as the vices of the outgoing president remain fresh in their minds. Eight years ago, Bill Clinton's character was the dark shadow that dogged the campaign. This time around it will be George Bush's ideological rigidity and his misguided war. Whoever becomes president, Republican or Democrat, we can be sure of one thing: it will not be anyone who professes Mr Bush's legacy.