WASHINGTON – The day that dropped the curtain on the 2004 presidential race raised one for the 2008 contest, with Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (search) and John Edwards (search) jockeying for advantage among Democrats and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search) the first on the stage for Republicans.
It's only four more years to go — minus a day. Who's counting? Lots of folks.
"You can be disappointed, but you cannot walk away. This fight has just begun," Edwards told Democratic loyalists in Boston in a concession speech that also could qualify as the leadoff stump speech of the next presidential campaign.
The Democratic decks are cleared with John Kerry's defeat, and Edwards and Clinton start off as early favorites within their party for 2008. Not that they — or Kerry — are talking about any plans so soon.
Since Bush cannot run again, the race is wide open on the Republican side as well, even more so than it would normally be. Usually the outgoing incumbent's vice president is the automatic favorite for the nomination. For instance, Democratic Vice Presidents Walter Mondale (search) in 1984 and Al Gore in 2000, Republican Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988.
But Vice President Dick Cheney (search), who is 63 and has a history of heart disease, has ruled out a run on his own for president.
That leaves a potentially crowded field — including Sens. Frist of Tennessee, John McCain of Arizona, George Allen of Virginia, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, New York Gov. George Pataki and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — with no early favorite.
Frist wasted no time in putting himself into play, beginning a "victory tour" of the South on Wednesday that included stops in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina with victorious GOP Senate candidates.
"Last night was a monumental victory" for the GOP-led Senate, Frist said. Wins included a five-state sweep of the South and the defeat of Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle in South Dakota. Frist's expanded GOP majority gives him a high-profile platform at least for the next two years. Frist said he will stick with a pledge to resign from the chamber when his second term is up in 2006.
Clinton, who would have been sidelined in 2008 with a Kerry-Edwards victory, is now front and center among would-be Democratic contenders. And her supporters were busy getting her name in circulation.
The former first lady has plenty of name recognition and a wide following. But some analysts suggest she could meet the same fate as Kerry as a liberal senator from a Northeastern state, despite the years she spent in Arkansas.
"She's already known. The public is already polarized around her," said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.
Doug Schoen, who served as former President Bill Clinton's presidential pollster, said it was too early "to talk personalities. The party's got to get repositioned first. It has to get back to the center with an aggressive assertion of traditional values."
Edwards might seem to have an advantage, being from the South. He drew high likability ratings on the campaign trail, both during the Democratic primaries and as Kerry's running mate. But his liabilities include a lack of political and foreign policy experience. And his decision not to seek re-election this year will make it hard for him to stay in the spotlight.
A trial lawyer, Edwards urged Kerry on Wednesday not to concede so quickly, but to make sure all options were explored.
Other Democrats who might run for the nomination in 2008 include Kerry himself, Sen. Evan Bayh (news, bio, voting record) of Indiana and Govs. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois and Tom Vilsack of Iowa. And, up and coming, the party's rising star, Barack Obama, of Illinois, who will be the only black member of the Senate when he is sworn in January.
"There is an abundance of people" willing and eager to run, said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University.
And Baker said a campaign like the past one — long, bitter and costly — may be becoming the norm in American politics. "It's like the Iditarod. It's this long race. You're exhausted and the dogs die," Baker said.