Will any candidate be ready on Day One?

"In my view, because the relationship between the Congress and (President Bush) has been so dysfunctional, voters basically saw experience as a negative factor," Richardson says. "They wanted something new and different. Voters wanted an inspirational type of candidate who was perceived to be a non-politician. I tried to weave 'change' and 'experience' as my mantra, but it just didn't work."

Before the Iowa caucuses, Richardson ran three wry, 30-second TV ads that showed him at a mock job interview.

"OK, 14 years in Congress, U.N. ambassador, secretary of Energy, governor of New Mexico, negotiated with dictators," a bored middle manager behind a desk said, clearly unimpressed as he thumbed through Richardson's application.

"So what makes you think you can be president?"

'Mr. Government' fails

The obtuse interviewer may have had a point. Predictions about presidential performance — even for candidates with impressive backgrounds — are notoriously unreliable, says historian and presidential biographer Robert Dallek.

"There are so many presidents with a great deal of experience who failed miserably," Dallek says. "Think first of all of James Buchanan, 1857 to 1861, from the run-up to the Civil War — so experienced that they called him 'Mr. Government' — and now invariably listed as one of the worst presidents in the country's history."

Buchanan had been a member of the House and Senate, secretary of State and minister to Great Britain. As president, however, he did little to respond when Southern states began to secede from the Union.

Buchanan's successor was Abraham Lincoln, a prairie lawyer who served eight years in the Illinois Legislature and one term in the U.S. House. "He had next to no experience at all," Dallek says, "and now is seen as probably the greatest president in the country's history."

Voters have to assess for themselves a candidate's judgment, character and common sense, but "it really is a crapshoot," he says. "Experience is fine, but does it guarantee anything? Not by any stretch of the imagination."

Even running a smart, disciplined campaign offers no assurances of competence. Ronald Reagan, widely viewed as one of the most consequential post-World War II presidents, dumped his top campaign staff in 1980 after struggling in the opening Iowa caucuses. Jimmy Carter led a shrewd, streamlined campaign for the job in 1976 — and then had a difficult presidency and was ousted by Reagan after one term.

Reading the clues

There are clues to what sort of president the current contenders would be from what they've said and what they've done:

•McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, touts his service to the nation since he took an oath of allegiance as an entering midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis at age 17. He was a Navy aviator and a POW during the Vietnam War, returning to serve for a year as commanding officer of a Navy training squadron with more than 1,000 servicemembers — an experience he cited in a candidates' debate in California last month when asked about his leadership credentials.

An Arizona senator for more than two decades, he has been chairman of the Commerce Committee and a leading voice on national security issues. He's also known for bucking Republican orthodoxy and working across party lines, one reason the most conservative elements of his party have been cool to his campaign.

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