So it begins

January 23, 2007

George W. Bush still has a fourth of his presidency to go. The newly elected Democratic-led Congress has only just completed its first-100-hours victory dance. There is much the two forces can accomplish together over the next two years.

Yet the political spotlight is trained on the more than two dozen hopefuls from both parties jockeying to succeed Mr. Bush - a star-studded lineup in a wide-open contest still so volatile that candidates' fortunes could rise and fall repeatedly over the year until the first primaries are held. Several White House wannabes have already flamed out.

More unusual than the timing, reports The Sun's Paul West, is that a much broader audience beyond the usual political insiders is paying attention at this early stage. Leading Democratic contestants Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton underscored the growing significance of the Internet as a campaign tool to reach these masses by announcing their presidential plans over their Web sites. "Let's chat," Mrs. Clinton urges invitingly.

The abundance of candidates probably results in part from the rare opportunity offered by the first presidential election since 1928 without an incumbent president or vice president in the contest. And there is certainly no shortage of issues, from the Iraq war and global warming to all manner of serious domestic challenges. Adding further fuel to the contest, Mr. West reports, is a sense that the country may be on the verge of historic transformation.

But for the too-early timing, the rich national debate that such a broad field of candidates can offer is a prospect to be applauded. And savored; groan as they might at the thought of a two-year campaign, voters are tuned in now. Which is just as well, because if the recent past is a guide, nominations could very well be all but decided by this time next year.

That's no excuse for Washington to effectively put government policy on hold until the new team arrives. As we listen to Mr. Bush's State of the Union address tonight, we will be hoping to hear practical proposals for a cooperative approach to addressing America's problems. We'd also like to see a willingness from his legislative partners to take the same tack.

Signals so far aren't promising, but in such critical areas as health care, energy, the environment, immigration and, of course, Iraq, two more years is simply too long to wait.

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