GREGG: Sadly, the primary process might help Sarah Palin

It is difficult to believe, but the first election for the next president of the United States is less than a year away.

The New Hampshire primary is alive and well and headed toward a date of Valentine’s Day next year, but it will probably occur earlier, perhaps even on Jan. 3. That’s not a long time from now in campaign time, but the most interesting aspect of this fact is that no one knows who is the leading candidate in the potential Republican field. 

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I have participated in presidential primaries in New Hampshire since 1976. It is part of the fun of being from that state. There has always been a presumptive favorite or two. Not this year. The field is wide open, the names numerous with more to come, one expects, but it is difficult to see clearly who might be the nominee.

In the past, there would be an heir apparent or maybe two. It would be between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan or Reagan and George Bush or Bush and Bob Dole or Bush and John McCain, but not this year. There does not seem to be an envelope floating around with a winner in it. This raises the issue of how the process will evolve.

Iowa will go first with its caucuses, which conventional wisdom says will be heavily influenced by the social activist groups. But the winner of Iowa will be hard-pressed to make a sale in the more open primary states that follow.

New Hampshire will be next, with the first primary, and it has traditionally been the place where the field gets quickly narrowed to two front-runners. The others who have joined the race for various reasons such as promoting their salability after the process or to make a single point fall out due to lack of resources or interest, i.e., votes.

This will probably not be the case this time. The winnowing of the field, which has been the role of New Hampshire, might not occur if there are no presumptive front-runners. In fact, the situation might simply become more muddled, as New Hampshire does not seem like fertile ground for the likes of former Govs. Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee or even Newt Gingrich. And yet, these candidates, if they run, might all still be very viable post-New Hampshire because of their name recognition if there is no heir apparent.

The mainstream national press will want to narrow the field because they will want to set up as soon as possible a foil to President Obama. They need someone to be a proper, tangible target. But even that might not work to limit the field early because political information, although still disproportionately influenced by The New York Times and its acolytes, is radically less centralized than even four years ago due to the Internet, blogs, Facebook and Twitter.

All this leads one to conclude that the Democratic Party’s nomination process of 2008, which was the most extended and competitive contest of recent times, might look like child’s play compared to the Republican enterprise of 2012. It is plausible that the most likely scenario will be that this could be the first convention since 1952 in which no one really knows who is going to be the nominee going into the hall.

Because the nominating process has become so dominated by primary elections, with the vast majority of the delegates chosen by direct vote, it is entirely possible that with no presumptive winner or even favorites, a candidate who runs second or third in a great many primaries could go into the convention with a sizable block of delegates.

Who would this favor? Does Sarah Palin come to mind? Although she is not viewed by most as strong enough to win, she is viewed by many as a person worth voting for to make a statement. And primaries tend to be populated by people who go to the polls with the purpose of making a statement.

Finishing second and third isn’t really a big deal — until you get enough delegates to be the nominee. And picking a nominee who it seems would be easily defeated by President Obama might not be the best statement.

Judd Gregg is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and also as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Foreign Operations Subcommittee.