GIVEN THE enormous money advantage of the front-runners and the jack-rabbit pace of the primaries, it was reasonable to expect the field of presidential contenders to narrow considerably by Labor Day, the traditional start of the political earnest season.
But as the last few campaign staffers hurry back from their beach vacations, and the candidates, like dying leaves, begin their autumn descent upon New Hampshire, politics is taking a different direction.
There have been a couple of early casualties in the overcrowded Republican field: Rep. John Kasich of Ohio acknowledged reality early on, and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander fell victim to the Iowa straw poll.
Instead of making it more focused, however, the overdetermined quality of the presidential race is causing it to broaden, past traditional party boundaries, into a perplexing mixture of alternative candidacies.
Pat Buchanan is weighing his options and appears likely to bolt to the Reform Party by the end of the month. If he does, a Reform candidate with different views on social issues would likely emerge, giving the party of Ross Perot its first real nomination fight.
The mercurial Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire -- who first left the Republican Party to seek the Taxpayer Party nomination, then announced he'd run as an independent, then considered dropping out altogether because of his wife's health -- has declared himself back in the hunt now that her condition has improved.
The Democrats haven't generated any third-party candidates, but they might have an intriguing spin-off in actor Warren Beatty, who has let it be known he might be serious about pursuing the party's nomination.
All this extracurricular presidential energy might not amount to much in the end. But, if nothing else, it seems to bespeak a collective dissatisfaction with the predictable nature of the presidential campaign in the early going, and a further loosening at century's end of the ties that bind voters to their parties of choice.
The same might be said about the candidacy of former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, who, according to a Boston Globe poll, has pulled into a dead heat with Vice President Al Gore in New Hampshire.
A surprising number of rank-and-file Republicans will tell you, in an offhand way, that they could vote for somebody like Bradley. Such a sentiment would be unlikely to survive a well-financed effort by the GOP to remind its voters of Bradley's Democratic voting record, but it says something about the willingness of self-identified party members to look past conventional labels.
This loosening of party loyalty is occurring at a time when the evolution of money politics continues unabated.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush's phenomenal fund-raising success has deflected attention from the continuing growth of soft money donations, but it is continuing at record pace. Common Cause reported last week that the two national party committees raised more than $55.1 million in the first six months of the year, 80 percent more than the amount raised during the same period four years ago.
Even the Indianapolis Colts have formed a political action committee. And maybe by season's end, they'll have a candidate.
Tom Baxter writes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in which this article first appeared.