Since my last post Richardson (Dem), Thompson (GOP), and now Giuliani (GOP) and Edwards (Dem) have dropped out.
That leaves two very close races, each of which is unusual in its own way.
On the Democrat side you have a very tight race. There was the potential for additional the drama due to the way in which votes are counted, but then Edwards dropped out. In the American system each party nominates their candidates at a convention some months before the presidential election. Each state has some number of delegates (more or less proportional to population) plus there are a few at-large delegates. In the months leading up to the convention different states choose their delegates in various different ways (I'll just call this "the primaries", although, technically speaking, some of them are "caucuses"). What's interesting about the Democratic Party's primaries is that the delegates from each state are not awarded in a winer-takes-all manner (as is the case for the GOP). Instead all the candidates receiving more than a certain percentage of the vote will pick up some delegates. Edwards, despite having no chance whatsoever of winning the nomination outright, or even of winning in any state, was still getting more than the cutoff. As a result he might have been able to pick up enough delegates to prevent Obama and Clinton themselves from picking up more than 50% of the delegates.
If, somehow, nobody were to win more than 50% of the delegates then we would see something that should be familiar to many Canadians: wheeling and dealing to try to get delegates to switch sides and to get weaker candidates to throw their support behind stronger candidates. It's unlikely, but technically possible to for something to occur similar to when Stéphane Dion leapfrogged ahead of Ignatieff and Rae to become the Liberal Party's leader. What would have been more likely, is for Edwards to trade his delegates for a position in any future administration (and let's face it, it looks like the Democrats are going to win the White House this year regardless of who's running).
Edwards could still trade his support to try to get the VP-nomination (for the second time). But also, Edwards is a malpractice-lawsuit lawyer by profession, and his whole campaign is built around a populist America-first, anti-business/pro-workers message so he would probably be happy to have one of the Cabinet positions that is relevant to his agenda; perhaps Attorney-General, Secretary of Labor, or Secretary of Commerce (or a combined Secretary of Commerce and Labor position).
Enough about the Dems, the really interesting fight is taking place on the Republican side.
Early in the primaries, when Giuliani had a lead in the national polls, some important conservative voices openly toyed with the idea of backing a third party candidate. Rudy's out now, but many of those same voters are going to be unhappy with the remaining candidates. Some conservatives are still unhappy with McCain over his support for an immigration-reform bill (paradoxically this bill was also strongly supported by Bush - and his base of support is those same social conservatives). On the other hand Romney's recent conversion from relatively liberal positions to a party-line message is of dubious authenticity. The term "flip-flopper" was overused in 2004, but if Romney is the GOP candidate you will hear that phrase even more frequently. The recent, suspiciously convenient, changes in his views on abortion, and gay-rights, and illegal-immigration will be replayed time and time again on news programs and in attack ads.
The other remaining candidate, Mike Huckabee, has no chance of winning. However, while I previously dismissed him as a not-serious candidate, he has actually done fairly well in the debates and on the stump. His biggest weakness is in-and-of-itself a fatal one: he is clumsy when discussing foreign policy. While it might be true that candidate George Bush (in 2000) also had foreign policy that was low on nuance, this is more of a liability now with the country involved in 1, 2, or 3 wars (is the War on Terror it's own war? Are Iraq and Afghanistan just 2 fronts in the same war?). On other topics, such as the Economy, Huckabee has come up with some quite impressive rhetoric, check out this ad:
Furthermore, I've found out a little bit more about him, and he actually has some views that might appeal to moderate voters (as well as his Evangelical base) if he were to get the GOP nomination. For example there's this from Slate:
Fiscally, and in his attitude toward social funding and even criminal justice, Huckabee has a record any DLC Democrat would be proud of ...In his book From Hope to Higher Ground, Huckabee includes a whole chapter called "STOP the revenge-based criminal justice system." He writes about how racial inequities are built into the system, and he approvingly quotes one prison official who told him, "We lock up a lot of people that we are mad at rather than just the ones we are really afraid of," and another who "astutely observed we don't have a crime problem, we have a drug and alcohol problem."
Unfortunately for Huckabee, not even Walker Texas Ranger can keep him from losing the race.
Between McCain and Romney the race is still too close to call. Regardless of who wins, the current back and forth over which one of them is really a liberal in disguise is only going to hurt. There's already a rather low level of enthusiasm about the GOP candidates, and if this translates to low voter turn-out amongst social-conservatives it will further help Obama/Clinton.
One other thing to keep in mind is that the GOP primaries are winner-takes-all, and the Evangelical vote is strongest in the South. Huckabee could try to stay in the race in order to win some of those states, and then aim to play kingmaker at the GOP convention. Huckabee as VP would go a long way towards soothing those social conservatives that are despondent about their choices.
Unfortunately for the Republicans, their ideal candidate does not exist. If he did he would resemble some sort of Frankenstein candidate with McCain's foreign policy, and war experience, Romney's business experience, and with Huckabee's religious street-cred. More realistically, the ideal candidate might have looked like a younger and more energetic Fred Thompson.