We've seeded the top five in each party according to a composite look at a variety of national polls as of Dec. 12 (you can find it at www.pollsters.com); for the bottom three, we've seeded them with anecdotal evidence of their relative power. Obviously candidates don't actually match up head-to-head the way college basketball teams do, so in case you haven't figured it out, this is just for fun. In keeping the media's obsession with knowing the news before it happens, I've even provided my own predictions, too.
Finally, as David Letterman would advise -- please, no wagering.
THE LEFT-OF-CENTER LEAGUE
Clinton v. Gravel
We haven't seen a candidate as delightfully deranged as former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel since Ross Perot's running mate James "Who am I? Why am I here?" Stockdale. We'll miss the laughs he brings to the stage, but the Hillary Clinton juggernaut is going to pound him into his thawing Alaskan permafrost.
Obama v. Kucinich
Dennis Kucinich was born a few decades too late; he would have been great during the Summer of Love. If only hippies ran the world. (Sigh.) Maybe he and Gravel can team up and land a gig in Vegas.
Edwards v. Dodd
Chris Dodd is a capable Senator, but he hasn't done enough to show how he's different from the rest of the pack. John Edwards has staked out the populist end of the party for himself, and that can be a powerful place to be in uncertain economic times.
Richardson v. Biden
Bill Richardson is the only Democrat candidate with executive experience (as governor of New Mexico), but the primary calendar is brutal for him, with only one Western primary in January. Joe Biden's foreign policy chops give him a narrow edge. (As a consolation prize, Richardson is a leading contender, along with Indiana's Evan Bayh, to be Hillary Clinton's running mate.)
Clinton v. Biden
As the race becomes more national, being from Delaware doesn't help Joe Biden. Being married to more-popular-than-ever Bill Clinton -- and having tons of money -- helps Hillary Clinton. A lot. Oh well, it kind of seems like Biden is really running to be the next Secretary of State.
Obama v. Edwards
Unless these two pair up on a ticket sometime in the spring to counter the media's predetermined Clinton coronation, this will be a tight one. John Edwards has more experience, but Barack Obama has the freshness factor. And in the South, Edwards' advantage (he's from North Carolina) is negated by Obama's race. But Edwards' endorsement, if he does quit, will be a major prize.
FINAL FOUR ROUND
Clinton v. Obama
She's a woman, he's black and they both have tons of money. Touch & eacute;. This one is going to come down to that old adage about familiarity breeding contempt -- "Clinton Fatigue" will catch up with Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, Barack Obama's promise -- and seeming ability -- to break from the past will be the winning message.
Giuliani v. Tancredo
In the play-in round, Tom Tancredo trumps Duncan Hunter for being a tad more immigration-mad; beyond that, who knows why Tancredo's in it. Everybody knows why Rudy Giuliani is running -- it's the only job big enough for him.
Huckabee v. Keyes
Remember, this is the Republican primary, and Mike Huckabee is the I-love-Jesus candidate. Every GOP voter seems to believe in Jesus; not everybody believes there really is such a thing as an African-American Republican.
Romney v. Paul
As the lone anti-war Republican, Ron Paul has attracted a lot of attention -- and financial support. But he doesn't have as much as Mitt Romney, who can tap his own personal fortune of $250 million. Ron Paul's best bet is as Michael Bloomberg's running mate in a third-party run or as the top man on a Constitution Party run.
McCain v. Thompson
This is the best of the first-round matchups in either party. Fred Thompson was supposed to dominate the field with his Reaganesque quality; a few years back, McCain was expected to win without much trouble. Having to fight your way into contention is always a good thing, but Thompson doesn't seem to have the interest or tenacity for it. Actors.
Giuliani v. McCain
Rudy Giuliani has walked the tightrope of Republican politics way longer than anyone expected, but here's where we'll find out that the party's not big enough for a social liberal. They may come to regret it, because Giuliani is clearly the best candidate for a national campaign against the Democratic nominee -- and the most experienced, having run one of the world's most complicated governments in New York City. John McCain's career full of straight-talk and honesty (by D.C. standards) starts to pay dividends.
Huckabee v. Romney
There will be a preview of this matchup in Iowa, where Mitt Romney's commanding lead has been gobbled up by Mike Huckabee over the past month. Romney is a favorite of Wall Street, while Huckabee is becoming the favorite of Christians; these two candidates embody the wings of the party that have uneasily coexisted since Reagan's era. Pundits will pin the outcome on the purity of their religious beliefs, but it might just be that Huckabee is more likable than the robotic Romney.
FINAL FOUR ROUND
McCain v. Huckabee
Somewhere along the line, Republicans will wake up and think, "We're not really nominating Mike Huckabee, are we?" While McCain is not the favorite of Christian conservatives, his long pro-life record is enough to make him a palatable compromise among the various constituencies inside the GOP tent.
Obama v. McCain
The past eight years of rumbling, stumbling and fumbling are just way too much for any Republican to overcome. What John McCain can do, however, is provide a map to the future for the Republican Party by staking out back-to-basics positions. That will also give congressional candidates a lifeline to potentially keep their jobs and prevent a total debacle for the GOP. If Obama is serious about changing the dynamic from blue states versus red states to one big happy land of purple, then he'll need to start as a candidate by embracing ideas and people Democrats may not like. And here's hoping the two of them can run a campaign that will repudiate the Rovian politics of pouring salt into our civic wounds as a campaign strategy. Still, despite all the drama leading up to this matchup, and despite the fact that the past two presidential elections have been nearly tied, this one will not even be close.
YOUR NEXT PREZ: BARACK OBAMA