Republicans normally pour the same amount of uncertainty into picking a presidential nominee that Buckingham Palace puts into its Changing of the Guard. That is, as little as possible. Republicans prefer to find a brand-name, big-state governor, surround him with the same right-thinking brains on taxes, foreign policy and the New Testament, back him with all the cash he will need to corner TV time in New Hampshire and then run the nominee through a quick gauntlet of primaries before anyone else has a chance at the prize. The whole thing makes for more of a ritual than a race, but there's no doubting that the formula works. In the past seven presidential elections, G.O.P. nominees have lost only twice.
But these are not normal times for Republican Party satraps, who can be best described these days as dispirited, confused and just plain tired. Their presidential nominating race has less clarity today than it did a year ago, less even than it did three months ago. Polls point to the political equivalent of a total solar eclipse, with three different Republicans leading in three of the initial primary and caucus states: Mike Huckabee in Iowa, Mitt Romney in New Hampshire and Rudy Giuliani in Michigan. None of these men, at present, would beat Hillary Clinton in a general-election matchup, and each would fare little better against Barack Obama. "If somebody could run as None of the Above," says former McCain campaign chief John Weaver, "he would be the front-runner."
Watching the G.O.P. search for a nominee has been a little like going to dinner at one of those mock medieval-jousting shows, where knight after knight appears in shining armor, only to be knocked rudely off his horse and into the dirt. Early White House favorites George Allen and Bill Frist quickly fell by the wayside in 2006. John McCain too much of a maverick to ever be a G.O.P. favorite, and yet a year ago the presumptive front-runner crash-landed his campaign this summer and is only now showing signs of an unlikely resurrection. His friend Fred Thompson materialized in midsummer to catch McCain's crown, but he fizzled fast. Romney became the party's default darling, spending his way to the top of several polls. But now he too has taken hits for being slippery, and what counts as momentum has passed to Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher from, of all places, Hope, Ark. The way the recurring nightmare has been going, Huckabee is likely to be unhorsed right about ... now.
Even Giuliani, the national front-runner a title that normally means something in a G.O.P. race but this year is the equivalent of "honorary chairman" is slumping in polls. Republicans have no experience with chaos like this, except in history books. "It is without a doubt," says G.O.P. strategist Ralph Reed, "the most unpredictable roller-coaster ride we've seen in a Republican primary since the rise of the primary in the 1960s." Party-history buff Newt Gingrich went further: he called the G.O.P. contest the most wide-open race the party has held since 1940 the year Wendell Willkie needed six ballots to capture the nomination before losing to F.D.R. in a third-term landslide.
It's improbable that someone named George Bush, the most visible beneficiary of the G.O.P.'s longtime bias toward primogeniture, would be responsible for bringing its era to a halt. But he is chiefly to blame for leaving the party of his father and grandfather without a healthy male heir. Bush tapped Dick Cheney seven years ago to be his Veep in part because he did not want a Vice President whose loyalties were divided between the Oval Office and the Des Moines Register. Cheney ran once before and could have jumped in again (he will be only 67 in January) had things gone differently. But Cheney is even less popular than Bush, whose ratings move in a narrow band between the high 20s and mid-30s and have been dragging down fellow Republicans. Even if the war in Iraq continues to simmer down or the economy firms, Republicans aren't likely to get much credit.