Will this presidential race throw up an American idol?

Consider the Jim Webb phenomenon. Two decades ago, he was a loyal Republican serving in the upper reaches of Ronnie Reagan’s administration. Six months ago, he was a maverick sort-of-Democrat pitched into a losing Southern state fight against a hugely popular Republican senator planning to run for president. And now — one televised speech later — he seems to be the bloggers’ top tip for the White House. Confused? We have only just started.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have shown their hands already. Joe Biden and Bill Richardson will soon be joining in (or opting out, like John Kerry). John Edwards has been tending Iowa for months now. The Democratic race for the Oval Office 2008 has rarely started so bemusedly. Any number, it seems, can play. Meanwhile, the incumbent party of American government is stuck, and twisting.

There is no natural party succession. The vice-president wouldn’t want it even if he were hugely popular — which he isn’t. The early Republican front-runner, the senior senator for Arizona, will be 71 when and if he takes office and has survived a bout of cancer. His most obvious challenger, a former mayor of New York, bowed out of active politics there because he too had cancer; but now, recovered, he seeks to be mayor of the US.

Any more for any more? Here’s a rightwinger from Kansas, a reviled former speaker of the House called Newt, plus a former governor from Massachusetts who supports the war in Iraq and happens to be a Mormon.

Now, perhaps, you can see why the Webb phenomenon matters. This very junior senator for Virginia gave the TV rebuttal to George W’s State of the Union address. He’s a new, if 60-year-old, face. He’s a lavishly decorated ex-marine from a marine family, and has a son serving in Iraq. He has plenty of Washington experience, but he’s also a novelist, historian and serial divorcee. He had a public spat with Bush at a party.

The protest crowds who were in Washington this weekend like him. And he has themes. Being against the war in Iraq is one of them, of course. Being angry about the increasing economic burdens on middle America is another.

He used both those tunes to great effect in that TV address. And, like Ronnie, he has a plain-spoken charm. Show the people a picture of your hero dad. Do nothing to trouble the Republican spin doctors who dub you ”the most conservative Democrat in the party” — because that’s good news, not bad.

You won in Virginia, in part, because on issues such as affirmative action and gun control you were somewhere due west of your Republican foe. And you look so alluring now because a marine hero who wants troops out of Iraq and also wants Bush to fly to Tehran for talks with the president there fits perfectly with any obvious Democratic prescription for success. Yes: you can be the anti-war candidate the National Rifle Association loves. Yes: you can even be tough on Bin Laden and mass immigration and free trade at the same time.

And there is the unique problem with an American presidential election race that has, for all practical purposes, started already. Many times past, you see at least one firm peg to hang a few calculations on. After Clinton, Gore; after Reagan, daddy Bush; after Carter, Mondale. There was always a favoured succession somewhere. But this time, there is not only no evident succession, but also no continuing consensus of conviction. All contestants welcome, and the theme that happens to hit a chord can produce an American idol. The power of the party machines is feebler than ever, because they have no favourite candidate. The direction the country must take is unsettled going on totally uncharted.

It’s a vacuum to register with unease. Here’s the great power, where most things begin, with two vacant, swilling years to go — and nobody has a blind idea what comes next. — Â

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