Democratic activists have complained for years about a presidential nominating process largely defined by the first-caucus state of Iowa and the first-primary state of New Hampshire. Both states, it was said, were too white, too rural and too prone to personality politics and regional eccentricity. So a lot of progressives wanted to open up the primary and caucus schedule with more regional, racial and ideological diversity. Now that the process is changing–rapidly and radically–the challenge is to use it to our advantage.

It won’t be easy. The 2008 race, the first since 1928 in which neither a sitting President nor Vice President is angling for the nomination, is proving to be exceptionally volatile. Neither party has a definitive front-runner. Presumed leaders, such as John McCain, have stumbled. Even after several rounds of high-profile debates, the fields continue to expand–with Fred Thompson preparing to leap into the GOP pack, while former Vice President Al Gore is a tantalizing prospect for Democrats. Then there is newly independent New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg stoking speculation about a run in the general election (see Micah L. Sifry, page 5), which could also feature Senator Chuck Hagel and Ralph Nader. It’s enough to send even the most dedicated activist searching for a scorecard and a comfortable seat to watch the game.

But this competition can’t be a spectator sport. The front-loading of primaries means that early moves will matter more than ever. Iowa and New Hampshire still come first, but not by much, as California, New York, Florida and now Illinois have elbowed their way into the early weeks of the nominating process. Instead of the leisurely calendar that once allowed candidates to build momentum, the first weeks of 2008 will see a mad rush that could begin as early as January 2, if Florida’s decision to flout party rules and schedule a January 29 primary spurs South Carolina, New Hampshire and Nevada to move up their primaries and caucuses. And the process should peak by February 5, when as many as twenty-five states choose delegates. The likelihood is that within weeks of the first voting, the nominations will be settled.

It is precisely the volatility of the ’08 race that creates unprecedented opportunities for progressives: The February 5 “super-duper Tuesday” contests make it more necessary for candidates to appeal aggressively to grassroots activists, and no Democratic candidate will have enough money to “buy” every state, as long as progressives get serious about organizing.

The point is not to organize for a particular contender but rather to assure that whoever wins is accountable to our stances against the Iraq War and for restoration of civil liberties, a robust response to global warming and universal healthcare. All of these issues have wide popular support, perhaps none more than national healthcare–note the raves for Michael Moore’s new film, Sicko (see Christopher Hayes, in this issue).

The progressive voice on these issues will gain traction only if, Democracy for America and Progressive Democrats of America, as well as unions, environmental groups and other issue-focused organizations, rapidly expand into a cohesive movement. New technologies make it easier than ever to organize voter lists and to communicate with voters about the candidates and the evolving dynamics of the race. In partnership with innovative state-based organizations,, unions and other national groups should prepare interventions throughout the process. Such interventions are essential. Given the volatility of the election and the new technologies, this is perhaps the best opportunity in a generation to nominate a genuinely progressive candidate–a candidate who can win next November.