WASHINGTON This was going to be the year a compressed political calendar and a crush of contests on February 5, when 22 states vote, would put an early end to the race to choose presidential nominees.
By the time votes were counted on "Super Tuesday," many experts believed, both Democrats and Republicans would have their White House candidates and be gearing up for November's election.
A remarkably unpredictable and chaotic campaign, with multiple candidates in both parties trading victories and no one grabbing the front-runner's role, has strategists pondering a race that extends well into February if not far beyond.
"Everybody thought February 5 would decide the whole thing, and now it's more likely it will just make everything even more confused," said Democratic consultant Erik Smith, an aide to Richard Gephardt during his failed 2004 White House run who is now unaligned.
The five major contests held so far in the two parties -- Democratic and Republican showdowns in Iowa and New Hampshire and a Republican primary election in Michigan -- have produced five different winners in the search for candidates to succeed President George W. Bush.
Among Democrats, Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Clinton of New York have each registered a win, in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively, and have enough money and staff to extend their battle.
Republicans are even more confused, with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney landing in the winner's circle once. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani hopes to get into the act on January 29 in Florida.
All of the contenders had hoped a string of early January victories would catapult them into February 5 with enough momentum to seize control of the race.
But the sheer number of contests on that date could give the multitude of legitimate contenders plenty of opportunities to find a win somewhere and move on.
TOO MANY WINNERS
"We are going to have between two and four credible candidates competing on Super Tuesday. They can split 22 states a lot of different ways," said Republican consultant Dan Schnur, who worked for McCain on his failed presidential bid in 2000 and is now unaffiliated.
"Anybody who can claim a partial victory by winning some states on Super Tuesday has some incentive to keep going."
Strategists for the top contenders are already considering the long view.
"A lot of campaigns are now looking at the race going beyond February 5 as a very real possibility," said Kevin Madden, a spokesman for Romney, whose victory in Michigan's primary on Tuesday helped cloud the Republican picture.
"During the long march up to the first contest in Iowa, not many people expected a state like Ohio would ever come into play," Madden said. "Now it's a whole new strategy."
Suddenly the primaries in Maryland and Virginia on February 12, a week after Super Tuesday, and Wisconsin on February 19 loom as potentially important contests.
Another possibly decisive round could be held on March 4, when the big states of Ohio and Texas, as well as Rhode Island and Vermont, hold contests.
"I don't think it's at all unreasonable to expect that someone on our side is going to be tromping around in March in Wichita Falls and Tyler, Texas," said Republican consultant Rich Galen, who works for former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson's White House campaign this year.
While no one is ready to predict the races will extend to this summer's nominating conventions, a prolonged campaign would put a premium on candidates with the money to endure and the staff to parachute into states that so far have been largely ignored.
Once one party settles on a candidate, pressure could build on weaker contenders in the other party to drop out and avoid a lingering primary fight. But most said an extended nomination battle does no real harm.
"I don't think a longer competitive primary hurts. My bigger fear in a presidential race would be a long quiet period where you have a nominee who is not getting much attention, and all the action is on the other side," Smith said.
"It's good to have the candidates for the party out in everyone's face every day," he said. "It puts them in good fighting shape for the fall."
(Editing by David Wiessler)
(For more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)