At this point in the 2008 race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama had not become the political phenomenon he would soon be, so there is still hope for the Democrats’ next superstar to emerge from the big cohort of candidates competing to be the party’s 2020 standard bearer.

Quite a few seemingly worthy candidates already have come and gone, including three Western governors, Steve Bullock of Montana, John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Washington’s Jay Inslee. Inslee had hoped to repeat the trick Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton pulled off, but politics has changed since those small-state governors came out of nowhere to win. This year, the Democratic National Committee established rules for candidates to earn a place in the endless round of pre-primary debates that did not favor outsiders. Anyone without an already established national name, a ton of money and easy access to cable news shows had little chance to stay in the game.

Now, even one of the early favorites to do well, California Sen. Kamala Harris, has had to call it quits for lack of funds and lack of enthusiasm for her candidacy. Of the still numerous contenders remaining, none seems poised to rocket away from the pack. The early leader, former Vice President Joe Biden, still hovers at or near the top in the polls, but he is far from dominant, and the focus on performance in debates has not helped his cause; he has too often come across as inarticulate and less than vigorous.

Once the caucuses and primaries kick in with the new year, the situation may clarify quickly. So far, though, it is hard to pick out the next Bill Clinton or Obama. Too many of the choices seem more like Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis: solid credentials but no charisma.

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