The conventional wisdom is that with the front loaded primaries each party's race will be over by the end of February.
But it's the first Presidential race since 1952 when neither the sitting President or Vice President is running. That explains the large candidate field. It's also one of the rare years in which each party has serious choices between its head and its soul.
The Democrats' soul is wth Al Gore. He really won in 2000. (Truth be told, for many Democrats their soul is with Ned Lamont, a true believer who beat a reviled incumbent Senator in the primary. That primary victory is all that matters.) If Gore won't run, Edwards or Obama or Dodd make a good stand in.
The Democrats' head is with Hilary Clinton, the heir to Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council, a group the liberal Democrats hate even more than they hate George Bush. This is the group who managed the only two Democratic presidential victories since 1976.
The Republicans face similar head/ soul choices. Karl Rove's genius was in welding evangelical social conservatives, small -l libertarian fiscal conservatives and big business Republicans into a winning coalition in a post Cold War world. 9-11 returned us to an era when national security matters, and Americans are unsure they can trust Democrats on the issue. This year the Republican soul may belong to Mike Huckabee, a solid social conservative with a populist bent; or to Sam Brownback or Tom Tancredo. The head? Rudy and Fred, and maybe Mitt. The Republican Big Tent that Rove built may not be able to stay together.
There is no reason that the winner of the Iowa caucus or the New Hampshire primary will go on to win the next three or six or ten primaries. It's possible that the campaigns in both parties produce two or three front runners without a clear leader; and two or three strong second tier candidates. If no clear front runner emerges, the second tier candidates may suspend their campaigns as they run out of money, yet stay in the race to make a deal- or with the hope of becoming everyone's second choice. The race, in either party, could go right up to the Convention.
If the race does last beyond the first month of primaries, the danger to Senator Clinton is that she will still need to cast votes in the Senate. Her day job will take time away from the campaign, or allow her opponents to argue that she is neglecting her duties. Far worse, voting yes or no on specific issues presents too many opportunities to anger convention delegates, or November voters.
Predictions? Not Clinton nor Obama. The Democrats go with their soul; the Republicans with their head- and the potential for a serious schism.