This is the first time since 1928 that there has been no incumbent president or vice president running in either party's primaries, which has made for a fairly wide-open race, with no clear favorite - or at least with all the reputed favorites having to weather serious doubts and challenges. Several candidates took a flyer on the possibility that lightning could strike, and they made the early debates more interesting than they might have been, but most of those are gone or will be soon. The Iowa caucus results did not create a dominant front-runner yet in either party.

It could be all but over February 5, when a slew of larger states hold primaries, which just might create an opening for an independent like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to take advantage of "buyer's remorse" in both parties after choosing too quickly. Or it could go on for long enough that voters just might get a sense of where candidates stand on issues, which has taken a back seat to resumes and biographies so far.

It is also a year when both major parties are struggling to redefine themselves and whatever meaning "liberal" and "conservative" have in voters' minds is somewhat muddled. The Democrats' New Deal coalition fell apart in 1984, but Bill Clinton succeeded by triangulating and governing as a moderate; whether that model, a more ideological model or a vague promise of "change" will prevail is up for grabs. The Republicans have seen the coalitions Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich put together dissipate in a wave of war-weariness and disgust over big spending.

This potentially useful flux within the major parties comes at a time when the country finds itself facing more uncertain times than many had expected. The war in Iraq, while it has receded from the forefront of many Americans' minds as U.S. casualties have declined, will confront the next president with difficult problems. Of course the scale of the U.S. occupation must be reduced, but how quickly and in what manner? Will significant numbers of U.S. troops remain, either as trainers or available for 911 calls? How many? How long? Will the number ever be zero? Have we learned anything from this misadventure about the wisdom of intervening in the affairs of other countries, or will the next president jump into some conflict, though perhaps after being more scrupulous about the quality of the intelligence? We'd like to hear a lot more specifics from all the candidates.

The Democrats have said they're devoted to "change," - not surprising after the presidency now ending - but have hardly been forthcoming about exactly what kind of change. Would they seek to undo much of that the Bush administration has done - the Patriot Act, increased surveillance of Americans and the growth of virtually unfettered executive power - or would they quietly rejoice in all that power and seek to use it for their own ends? Is the party as hostile to business as John Edwards seems to be? Will we see a major retreat from the free-trade policies that were a staple of Democratic administrations from Roosevelt through Clinton?

When Democrats speak of health care, are they really wedded to the kind of single-payer government-run system Canada and most of Europe are finding less than ideal, or is there an openness to more market-oriented approaches? Will they really defend Social Security as it exists right up to the moment when it becomes unsustainable?

Few of these questions have yet been discussed in more than sound bites by any of the candidates. (Vagrant thought: might the cable news channels devote some of that 24/7 time to serious, long-form discussions featuring sharp questioning with candidates one by one instead of shouting matches among unemployed consultants?) That's one reason we hope the race isn't over too soon, without the wide-ranging discussion of alternatives voters deserve and haven't yet gotten.