Barely three weeks from now, on Jan. 3, Republicans will start the quest for their 2012 presidential nominee in Iowa's precinct caucuses. Already the winnowing process among the candidates has begun, with the "suspension" of Herman Cain's ill-fated campaign.
The process will continue for the survivors after Iowa, unless one of them unexpectedly scores an early knockout, as the well-heeled Mitt Romney had first hoped. But with the pendulum seemingly swinging Newt Gingrich's way lately, Mr. Romney will now be relying on his better-financed and better-organized campaign to check the former House speaker's unexpected momentum.
In any event, the revised rules of the game for 2012 suggest that it may be some months before Mr. Romney or Mr. Gingrich or any of the others acquires a majority of the convention delegates to claim the nomination. For the first time, all delegates awarded between the Iowa kickoff and April 1 will be calculated proportionally, based on the percentage of support in the various state caucuses and primaries.
That means even the losers will qualify for delegates by winning at least 15 percent of the total vote in any state contest, as opposed to the winner-take-all provision in force in some early-voting states in the past. The obvious objective is to reduce the possibility of a quick choice before most of the states have had a chance to weigh in.
The rush in the past of states to hold their caucuses and primaries early, known as front-loading the political calendar, has also been eased by some larger states moving their dates back into the spring months. So to stay in the race over the long slog, the surviving candidates will need more money than ever to stay in.
Mr. Romney is far ahead of Mr. Gingrich in campaign fund-raising right now. However, the ability of the supposedly unaffiliated super-PACs to pour unlimited money into the contest, thanks to the Supreme Court's ruling opening the floodgates, throws all clairvoyance as to the outcome to the winds. Some may well favor the latest rising star. We're already seeing the folly of the Federal Elections Commission proviso barring collusion between such groups and formal candidate committees. In advertising, for example, a campaign that knows an outside PAC will be running effective commercials for its candidate can divert its own resources to other needs.
Today's presidential campaign already has being going on for more than a year, complete with endless televised candidate debates and polls on who's up and who's down. It' a far cry from the leisurely and digestible pace of half a century ago. In 1960, Democratic Sen. John F. Kennedy did not announce his candidacy until the day after New Year's, and his eventual foe, Republican Vice President Richard M. Nixon, did not start assembling his own campaign team until the end of January.
In the first presidential primary that year in New Hampshire, Kennedy had no serious challenger and didn't face real competition until April, when he defeated Sen. Hubert Humphrey in Wisconsin and was on his way. Nixon had no primary challenger at all, placating New York's liberal Republican Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller on the Republican platform at the convention that nominated him. Only a few loyal political associates ran each campaign, and there was no nonstop political talk-show chatter on cable, there being no cable.
About the only notable similarity between then and now is that Nixon, like President Obama in the current race, got a free ride through the primary campaign season. But that didn't save him from the narrow defeat he suffered at Kennedy's hands on election night. This time around, Mr. Obama will also have the luxury of not having to run a gauntlet of primaries to be nominated, absent a late and totally unexpected Democratic challenge.
His biggest obstacle to re-election at this stage, however, may not be any of the Republican candidates about to run that pre-nomination obstacle course. Rather, it could be his own inability after nearly three years in the White House to lift the stalled American economy, the chief cause of his slipping public approval.
Jules Witcover is a former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.