THE FIRST instinct, looking from a distance at the Keystone Kops race for the Senate in Virginia, may be to thank your lucky stars you don't live there.
The rest of the country doesn't have to choose among Chuck Robb, Douglas Wilder, Oliver North and Marshall Coleman, but in this race we could be seeing the forerunner of what elections elsewhere will be like by the end of the decade.
The Old Dominion race officially became a free-for-all recently when the two politicians who carried their respective party's standards in the 1989 governor's race announced they were bolting to make independent bids.
Mr. Coleman, a former Republican, jumped into the race with support from the United We Stand crowd. Mr. Wilder, Chuck Robb's nemesis, officially announced his candidacy on Sunday.
It looks bad enough for the future of the two-party system that neither Mr. Wilder nor Mr. Coleman appears to have lost any election advantage by taking a walk. Even worse, this campaign will spotlight Chuck Robb and Oliver North as the party loyalists, which will lead some insiders to contemplate whether it's worth it to be inside anymore.
It required a special set of circumstances for Virginia to get to this point, but the rest of the country isn't far behind. In Iowa, Rep. Fred Grandy has written supporters this week to say he may run for governor as an independent after losing the Republican primary to incumbent Terry Branstad.
Or take Alabama. The two-party system will hold there this year, but only, it seems, through force of habit.
Incumbent Gov. Jim Folsom had to hold off a primary challenge from Paul Hubbert, whose Alabama Educational Association practically amounts to a party in itself. Former Gov. Fob James, a Democrat turned Republican, might have run as an independent -- and may wish he had, after his GOP runoff battle with state Sen. Ann Bedsole. With only a little more animosity among the candidates, this could have been a four-way, Virginia-style race.
Beneath the colorful personality clashes that have dominated the news about the Virginia race, there is a contest between two theories about how to organize a political party -- and both are losing.
Republicans have a tightly wound, federal-style system. All power begins at the local level, and only those whose supporters show up at neighborhood caucuses move ahead; there are no exceptions.
At the national and state levels, Democrats have opted for a looser, more inclusive organization, which aims to keep as many groups as possible under the party tent.
One important issue at play in the Virginia race is which of these approaches is best suited for an era in which party loyalties are fraying -- or whether both will prove inadequate for elections in which the vote is split three, four or even more ways. That's the new look of American politics, and Virginia is leading the way.
Tom Baxter writes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.