If the contest for the 2008 presidential nomination in both parties were a real horse race, it would be the Belmont, not the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness.

The Belmont, the last jewel of racing’s Triple Crown, is the longest of the three races at a mile and a half. It’s not won by sprinters but by horses with stamina.

The question facing both parties at this point (almost a year before the caucuses and primaries begin) is which horses can make a strong finish. Candidates out in front of the pack in March of 2007 may fade down the stretch.

Let’s look at each party.

We’ll start with the Democrats because they are getting the most ink at this point and because the nomination of either front-runner (Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama) would truly be a breakthrough in American politics. Neither party has ever nominated a woman or a racial minority for president.

I distinctly remember a story in the Wall Street Journal in January of 1988, reviewing recent history as an indicator of which candidate would win the Democratic nomination that year. The Journal made the point that the candidate with the most money at the beginning of the election year normally won. The candidate with the most money in January of 1988 was Michael Dukakis and, sure enough, he won the nomination.

This year we will have at least two Democratic candidates with the ability to raise an enormous amount of money – Clinton and Obama. Everyone is anxiously awaiting the March 3l Federal Election Commission reports which will show how each one has done at fundraising during the first three months of 2007.

Of course, Howard Dean was the early fundraising leader in the 2004 campaign but he went through his money at a very rapid clip and his early fundraising prowess did not guarantee victory. I don’t believe first place in fundraising will necessarily indicate who will win this time either.

The key question facing Democrats is: Will Clinton and Obama punch each other out during the course of this horribly long campaign for the nomination as Dean and Dick Gephardt did in Iowa in 2004? John Kerry was the beneficiary of the fight between Dean and Gephardt in Iowa that year and John Edwards or someone else could be the beneficiary this time if the public grows weary of the top two contenders.

Only time will tell. Clinton and Obama are both strong candidates but this race is far from over.

A similar scenario is playing out on the Republican side. Rudy Giuliani and John McCain are the two front-runners in the GOP, with Giuliani starting to open a real lead over McCain in early polls. In order to bring the former New York City mayor down to earth, McCain will have to run a very tough campaign highlighting Giuliani’s past support for gay rights, gun control and abortion rights. It will be hard for McCain to go after Giuliani on his personal life since he has issues in that area as well.

Assuming Giuliani and McCain may ultimately cancel each other out, the question then arises as to who would still be standing a year from now in Republican caucuses and primaries. It could be former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich or Sen. Chuck Hagel.

It is clear that this year is different from many other presidential campaigns in the past. Never has a race started this early in both parties and not since 1952 has there been neither an incumbent president or vice president as either party’s nominee.

There is a reason horse racing has not had a Triple Crown winner in a very long time. Several recent horses have won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness but have not been able to go the distance in the longer Belmont.

I enjoy placing two-dollar bets from time to time at my local track. I wouldn’t bet a penny on the outcome of these two races right now. I just know that both the public and the candidates will be weary as they head for home next spring.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Flanigan and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

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