Thinning the field

And then there were four.

No, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee hasn’t dropped out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Neither has Texas Rep. Ron Paul. And former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel hasn’t abandoned his bid for the Democratic nomination.

But after Tuesday’s primary vote in Florida, a field that once numbered 17 has thinned to four viable candidates for president: Arizona Sen. John McCain has the upper hand on former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the Republican race, and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton is beating back Illinois Sen. Barack Obama on the Democratic side.

Distant third-place finishes in the country’s fourth most-populous state compelled former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Republican, and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat, to follow eight other dropouts to the sidelines. Regardless of whether Mr. Huckabee, Rep. Paul and Mr. Gravel decide to join them, their fate appears to be sealed as well.

Should Americans anticipate campaigns that culminate in suspenseful party conventions? Probably not. In fact, voters could see the major parties anoint their nominees as early as next week.

About half the delegates needed to nominate each candidate are up for grabs on Super Tuesday, when 22 states will split a national spotlight that has thus far focused on the provincial politics of some of the smaller states. Decisive showings by Sens. McCain and Clinton — they have big leads in the biggest prize, California — could all but sew up nominations that, at varying times, seemed to be out of their reach.

Mr. Romney and Sen. Obama seem determined to remain in the race through the Republican and Democratic national conventions — and that’s a good thing. Their continued campaigning, regardless of how they fare Tuesday, will ensure some level of issue-driven debate through the spring. The rush to rally partisans behind a single candidate without an ample airing of ideas and ideals can carry some risk — if Democrats could do it all over in 2004, how many would stick with John Kerry as their nominee?

Election Day is still nine months away. A lot can happen between now and then.

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