I heart US presidential elections. Don't ask me why, I can't explain it - perhaps early exposure to Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 is responsible. Whatever the reason, I always savour the long months of an American presidential election campaign. The wrangling, the ebbs and flows of support, the analysis, the polls, the speeches, the pivotal moments on the trail, on the stump.
The most fun is to be had during the primaries where various states decide which candidate they favour from the two main parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. Fringe candidates can become contenders while front-runners can stumble and fall. This year's contest is particuarly fascinating because no sitting president or vice-president is in the running, throwing the field wide open.
The Democrats have got the Big Mo, and look the most likely party to take the presidency when the election finally happens in early November - but which Democrat will succeed? Former first lady Hillary Clinton was the presumptive front-runner for months, but Barrack Obama swept past her to claim the first victory in the Iowa caucases last week, Clinton only managing third.
Polls suggested he held a lead of up to ten points over Clinton in yesterday's New Hampshire primary. Expectations were being lowered that Hillary would be beaten again. Such was the pressure, she came close to tears on the trail - and seems to have inadvertantly won the hearts of female voters. They went resoundingly with Clinton, delivering her a surprise victory over Obama in New Hampshire. [John Edwards is the third Democrat candidate, and seems out of the running.]
If Obama had won New Hampshire, he would have owned the Big Mo and likely left Clinton facing a long, slow painful defeat. Instead Clinton's win puts her right back in the race, guaranteeing more fun and games at least until early February when 22 states simultaneously go to the polls in primaries. If neither Clinton nor Obama win a decisive victory there, the race goes onwards.
The dream scenario for me is a tied primary race that takes the contest all the way to the Democratic Party Convention. [If you want to see what that looks like, watch the last ten episodes of The West Wing season six on DVD - cracking stuff.] Why the dream scenario? Because it extends the fun and the interest.
If the Democratic race is about two main candidates, the Republican race is a sprawling bunfight of epic proportions. John McCain was considered dead and buried last summer - no money, few supports, no prospects. Yesterday he won the New Hampshire primary, bringing his campaign back from the dead. Who else is in the Republican race? Huckabee, Romney, Rudy, that actor who said 'Russkies don't take a dump without a plan' in The Hunt For Red October and several others.
The Republican race is almost anybody's still to win. With no presumptive candidate yet emerging, it's hard to see the Grand Old Party discovering unity in time to win the election. Whoever does triumph from the GOP, they face one crucial decision - how to compaign against Obama or Clinton. The former will be America's first black candidate in a presidential election campaign, the latter America's first female candidate in a presidential election campaign.
Dare the republicans go negative? If so, when? Do they play the race card if Obama is the candidate? Tricky, but possible. Dare they play the gender card against Hillary? That could be suicidal, as women represent far more voters than minorities. That's not to say women will automatically vote for Hillary - far from it - but female-bashing won't help the Republican cause if Clinton gets the nomination.
Like I said, there's plenty more twists and turns to come in this campaign, even after the candidates have been chosen. Clinton's win in New Hampshire last night has guaranteed that. Bring it on!