Join a favorite parlor game of the political class by answering this question: Can any candidate take the Republican presidential nomination away from George W. Bush? If so, how?
A few months ago, you might have said Elizabeth Dole. She was close to Bush in the polls and appealed to the same broad, moderately conservative constituency.
But Republican professionals are down on her chances, and polls show Dole voters moving to Bush. Her courageously tough stand on gun control appeals more to Democratic than Republican primary voters.
Businessman Steve Forbes is the only Republican with the cash to compete with the bulging treasury of Bush Inc. Forbes has also spent four years figuring out where he stands on the issues, and why.
But many Republicans doubt the party will turn to a man who has never held elected office and who still carries scars from the tough advertising campaign he waged against former senator Bob Dole in the 1996 primaries.
Former vice president Dan Quayle, much brighter than his public image would suggest, is weighed down by that image. Former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander was the Republican with the best chance of defeating Bill Clinton in 1996. Now many Republicans who backed him four years ago for that reason flock to Bush.
Unless they perform miracles, the Quayle and Alexander campaigns are likely to be near death after Iowa's Republican straw poll on Aug. 14. Straw polls are silly, unrepresentative and easily purchased. But candidates endow them with meaning, so they mean something.
Gary Bauer and Pat Buchanan, the twin heroes of the activist right, will certainly affect the party's dialogue. But Republican rank-and-filers are less right-wing than Democrats like to think, so the GOP won't nominate them. And Orrin Hatch, who has served Utah faithfully in the Senate, is likely to continue to do so after the 2000 election.
That leaves the John McCain Surprise. It's a popular scenario here -- but not just here. For the Arizona Republican senator to win, Bush would have to make mistakes. As one Republican operative noted, most campaigns are decided not by the brilliant moves of the winners but by the errors of the losers.
Second, Forbes will have to spend a lot on television advertisements aimed at bringing Bush down. All of Bush's challengers should hold a testimonial dinner in Forbes's honor. He's the only candidate with the money to wound Bush, and the other candidates are counting on him.
Then there are McCain's assets. He's a reformer (thus the mini-boomlet for him at the recent Reform Party convention). A Vietnam POW, he's working hard at organizing veterans. Jeff Groscost, the speaker of the Arizona House, noted at a dinner here of Arizona pols that South Carolina, a key early primary state, has the highest proportion of veterans per capita of any state.
McCain has opted out of the Iowa straw poll. That, says Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, means he won't go broke in pursuit of a prize he would not have won anyway. And his maverick stands on campaign finance reform and tobacco legislation mark him out as an independent. This helps account for the warm treatment of McCain by the Washington press corps (which likes him a lot better than do Arizona reporters, many of whom find him prickly and at times bullying).
Yet McCain's overall record is very conservative, meaning that if he does become competitive, Quayle, Bauer and Buchanan supporters might move toward him as an acceptable alternative to the Establishment-annointed Bush.
Now the problems with this McCain scenario: Tarnished by his anti-Dole efforts in 1996, Forbes does not want to be the Mr. Negative of the 2000 race and may not play his part. Republican operatives may be reluctant to go hard on Bush, who looks like a winner and is known to have a long memory. Consultants who want to eat lunch and make money in Washington again don't want to be on Bush's enemies list. "If I were Elizabeth Dole or Pat Buchanan, I'd worry that my people were thinking like that," says one Republican professional.
Moreover, many of McCain's supporters are careful to express their admiration for Bush. Arizona state Sen. Mark Spitzer backs McCain, talks of Bush's problems as a "patrician" and argues: "George W. is going to have to deal with that silver spoon." But Spitzer is quick to add: "I like George W. Bush." It sounds like a case for Bush-McCain.
If that's on McCain's mind, he may not run the kind of campaign it will take to upend the overwhelming front-runner. But it's hard, at this moment, to see who else could.