After months of quiet jockeying, the 2008 presidential race begins in earnest as campaigning ends in a fierce midterm election that has helped reshape the next contest on both sides.
White House hopefuls have been blazing across the country -- stumping for allies, stroking donors and giving away millions of dollars in goodwill contributions -- as they competed in a kind of shadow campaign.
Tonight, the presidential prospects start politicking for themselves when they flood the airwaves with their assessment of today's vote. "That's the starting gun," said GOP strategist Scott Reed.
Though some may claim credit for having a hand in the outcome -- Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Barack Obama of Illinois were among the most popular attractions -- others have less to brag about. Sens. George Allen of Virginia and John F. Kerry of Massachusetts both tripped over their tongues, seriously undermining their chances in 2008. Allen hopes just to hang onto his Senate seat in today's balloting.
The early presidential maneuvering stems from a sense that the White House contest will be unusually competitive. For the first time in more than 50 years, no sitting president or vice president is running, denying any candidate that leg up.
Still, both parties have clear favorites: Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Republican McCain. Enough people have doubts, however -- about Clinton's electability and McCain's support among GOP activists -- that neither seems a sure bet, assuming they run.
McCain won't make up his mind until he has "a family discussion" over the holidays, said John Weaver, a political aide, adding "all those around him hope and anticipate that he will make an affirmative decision."
Clinton, who constantly brushed aside questions about 2008 as she focused on winning reelection, has not even thought hard enough to set a timetable for her decision, said Howard Wolfson, who helped guide the senator to what will probably be a landslide win today. Her strategists hope a strong showing in conservative upstate New York will dispel doubts about Clinton's broad appeal.
Both parties also have dynamic -- if untested -- prospects capable of transforming the nomination battle overnight, should Obama, a Democrat, or former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a Republican, enter the presidential race.
Aides for each suggested a decision on 2008 was not imminent.
A handful of governors and senators from both parties also are expected to jump into the contest, along with the last Democratic vice presidential nominee, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. One Democratic candidate, former Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, has already quit the race.
Given the front-loaded calendar -- the assumption is both nominees will be chosen by early February 2008 -- the bulk of campaigning will occur in 2007. A series of formal announcements is likely in the next few weeks, beginning with several of the lesser-known candidates; no one can imagine waiting until late summer a year out to make their intentions known, the way Bill Clinton did before winning the 1992 Democratic nomination.
Ballpark estimates put the cost of a competitive campaign at $30 million to $50 million for each side, though winning candidates could easily spend twice that. For Democrats, there will also be new ground to cover, with early contests added in Nevada and South Carolina, along with the traditional kickoff states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
"Generally you'd tunnel into those two states and fan out from there," said David Axelrod, an Obama advisor. "Now you've got to spread your resources over a greater terrain."
The midterm results will go a long way toward shaping the political landscape. Much depends on whether Democrats win back either house of Congress, or both, and by how much.
A Democratic takeover of the Senate -- which seems a longer shot than control of the House -- could elevate several contestants who "would have a different type of voice" as a member of the majority, said John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster from Alabama. "Then it's no longer just blocking and tackling."
On the Republican side, David Carney, a GOP strategist in New Hampshire, said losing the House or Senate could result in a quicker resolution of the Republican nomination fight, so the party can channel its energies into regaining control of Capitol Hill.
"I think the party establishment will want to avoid a knock-down, drag-out fight," Carney said. "That could mean the money wouldn't be there for some of the third- and fourth-tier candidates, which would really narrow the field."
Others, however, anticipate a more drawn-out debate over the direction of a post-Bush Republican Party.
Already, some question the strategy of relying so much on the party's conservative base to eke out narrow legislative and election victories.