The term "horserace" is relentlessly applied to presidential election campaigns, but the current contest actually fits the label.
It features neck-and-neckers, come-from-behinders and odds-maker favorites who stumbled out of the gate. With large fields vying for the Republican and Democratic nominations now headed into what may or may not be the final furlongs, this is surely the most compelling White House competition in decades.
Alas, like horseracing, this presidential primary contest is likely to be for most Americans a spectator sport. Despite the extraordinary volatility, nominations in both parties seem almost certain to be settled before Maryland votes on Feb. 12 - and perhaps long before. Yet even those who don't get to take part in the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, the New Hampshire primary Jan. 8 or balloting that will include more than half the states on or before Feb. 6 can root from afar for their favorites. So here is a bit of a tipsheet to help with the choice.
Joseph R. Biden Jr.: Perhaps the sharpest foreign policy mind in the race - a great asset for the enormous diplomatic challenges ahead. Can't break through the pack, though.
Hillary Rodham Clinton: Tops in domestic policy, and voters get two for price of one - again. But there's a fine line between enthusiasm for the historic spectacle and Clinton fatigue.
Christopher J. Dodd: Accomplished senator who seems to be making a valedictory run for president before retiring. One time around the track for the grandkids.
John Edwards: A show pony whose success as a trial lawyer convinced him he should start at the top in politics. Probably the most articulate of the field, but untested as a political leader. His lone term in the Senate was unremarkable.
Mike Gravel: A former Alaska senator and anti-war activist during the Vietnam era who re-emerged to fiercely demand an end to the war in Iraq. His chief contribution has been to paint the Democratic frontrunners as craven war sympathizers.
Dennis J. Kucinich: Another member of the nomination contest's out-of-Iraq chorus, the former "boy mayor" of Cleveland and member of Congress since 1997 is a consistently liberal advocate for social policy issues, including Medicare for all. He tilts the field left but can't gain traction.
Barack Obama: A long-shot newcomer now running abreast with field leaders Clinton and Edwards. Short on experience but long on promise in a contest where desire for change may be a deciding factor.
Bill Richardson: A schmoozer and dealmaker whose force of personality took him from congressional backrooms to high-wire diplomacy to success as a progressive New Mexico governor. Yet a middle-of-the-packer in this field.
Rudolph W. Giuliani: A one-trick pony running on his calm command after the 9/11 attacks in a campaign intended to appeal to voters' fears instead of their hopes. The tactic was successful for President Bush in 2004 but seems negative and outdated now.
Mike Huckabee: A former Baptist minister running on the basis of folksy charm, an unabashed appeal to the Christian right and broad dissatisfaction with the rest of the GOP field. His dazzling come-from-way-behind performance is reminiscent of Seabiscuit, but personal faith isn't a platform.
Duncan Hunter: A long-term, but little-known, congressman who appears to have looked at this wide-open race and asked: "Why not me?" His platform calls for protectionism, militarism and fenced-out illegal immigrants. He's trailing badly.
Alan L. Keyes: A blast from the past who twice sought a Senate seat from Maryland and is now making his third bid for the White House. Always conservative, he's making a particular appeal for the religious right unleavened by Mr. Huckabee's gentle banter. Almost too far behind to see.
John McCain: Class of the GOP field in foreign and domestic policy. Broke too fast from the gate, and pandered a bit to the right, but is back running in top form as his own man.
Ron Paul: Though running for the GOP nomination, this Libertarian is in a category by himself. He's anti-war, anti-tax, anti-spending, anti-government. A sudden burst of campaign contributors suggests he's making some headway.
Mitt Romney: Wealthy, handsome, successful, the former Massachusetts governor seems to have everything going for him but sincerity. He has jockeyed for the lead but may not go the distance.
Fred Thompson: Peaked during The Hunt for Red October. The former actor, senator and Watergate lawyer has not been able to muster more than a halfhearted trot in the campaign field.