SALT LAKE CITY — It is tempting to wish that our presidential election could be like one of those short, sharp, but civil campaigns lasting only a few weeks that the British have when they choose their political leaders.
After all, we know the patrician John Kerry will head the Democratic ticket. The folksy George Bush will be the Republican contender.
What can they possibly talk about for eight long months that will keep us transfixed?
The polls suggest that large blocs of voters on either side are already committed, and in the end it will come down to a narrow sliver of undecideds in the middle, and a knee-jerk decision by the voters as to which man they like best.
But unpredictable events shake things up.
After all, only weeks ago the pundits had established Howard Dean as President Bush's surefire opponent. Look how a primeval scream changed that.
Here are some "what-if's?" - some possible, some fanciful - that could give a new twist to this year's presidential campaign.
• What if Vice President Dick Cheney, for reasons of health or politics, should not run for the vice presidency, and National Security Adviser Condi Rice, a smart, black woman, should become George Bush's running mate?
What if Sen. Hillary Clinton, despite all the pundits' pooh-poohing, gambled that Senator Kerry couldn't take Bush and ran as Kerry's vice president this time around to position herself for the presidency four years hence? A Bush-Rice ticket against a Kerry-Clinton ticket would certainly be intriguing.
• What if Ralph Nader, who might divert as much as 6 percent of the vote from the leading candidates, said he'd thought it all over, was withdrawing, and urged his supporters to vote for Kerry?
• What if Alan Greenspan popped interest rates, banks foreclosed on first-time homeowners who bought in at short-term low rates and couldn't afford the uptick, and consumer buying went into a slump?
• What if Al Qaeda, which has shown a sophisticated interest in influencing political events in Iraq, sought to influence the outcome of the US presidential campaign by launching a major attack on the United States a week or two before election day?
Would it strengthen President Bush in the voters' eyes, or weaken him? What would it do to Kerry's prospects?
• What if sometime this summer US forces, storming a cave on the Afghan-Pakistani border, captured or killed Osama bin Laden?
• What if, on the US election day, Iraq were in the midst of an ugly civil war that threatened to negate the US sacrifice there?
• What if, conversely, Iraq were at relative peace, Saddam Hussein's crimes were being laid out in a sensational show trial, and new evidence of weapons of mass destruction surfaced? (For instance, The New York Times reported last week that Russian engineers were actually aiding a long-range ballistic missile program in Iraq even in the years just before the war that ousted Hussein.)
• What if Fidel Castro were toppled and, out of the chaos in Cuba, were to come thousands of refugees heading across the water to Florida?
• What if Taiwan, after taunting Beijing with threats of declaring independence, were undergoing a "preemptive strike" from the Chinese mainland?
• What if talks with North Korea to neutralize its nuclear armaments program had broken down and the North Koreans defiantly exploded a primitive nuclear weapon?
• What if California went bankrupt ... a giant asteroid were found heading for Earth ... little green men turned up on the other side of Mars? What if all the possibilities above took place simultaneously?
So much for a string of unpredictable changes, unlikely scares, and impossible scenarios.
If the campaign is going to be long, it would be really nice if it could be civil, but the portents are not good.
Kerry is lashing out at Bush, for everything from avoiding service in Vietnam, in a war Kerry fought in but says was wrong, to failing to put out the White House lights at night.
Bush is fighting back, accusing Kerry of that most heinous of crimes, being a politician who flip-flopped on everything to curry favor with the voters, including the war in Iraq in which neither of them fought, but for which Bush was the commander in chief.
In politics, anything can happen. Stay tuned.
• John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News, is a former editor of the Monitor.