By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington
By now everyone knows that the next presidential election will be the most open in 80 or so years.
There are candidates galore.
But no-one could have predicted that they would spawn into a veritable rash of presidential hopefuls: 20 and counting, half of them for the Republicans!
Might Fred Thompson be the man the Republicans need?
Unwilling to be outdone by Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the Grand Old Party also boasts a few firsts:
The first Italian-American to run for president from a major party, Rudy Giuliani, who also happens to be the first double divorcee;
Senator John McCain, who would be the oldest man ever to become president;
And no fewer than two potential candidates called Thompson.
There's Fred Thompson, the lawyer-turned-actor-turned-senator-turned-actor from Tennessee.
And Tommy Thompson, the former health and human services secretary, who once famously declared that the "problem with America is that we are just too darned fat!"
Not surprisingly, a joke is making the Beltway rounds: "A lonesome Republican voter is accosted by a gunman in the dead of night. The gunman points his weapon at the hapless voter and asks: 'Who will you vote for? Romney? McCain? Or Giuliani?'
The Republican thinks deeply, then shrugs and says: 'OK. Go ahead and shoot me!'"
The panic-stricken hunt for the right candidate is unusual in a party known for its discipline.
It smacks of a deeper malaise afflicting the Grand Old Party, reeling from the mid-term elections, the Iraq war, the departure of once-mighty grandees like the Tom "The Hammer" DeLay and the queasy feeling that Capitol Hill is now ruled by the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada and his powers of the subpoena.
The whiff of corruption is spreading through the administration as fast as the mould creeping up the walls of Building 18 in Washington's Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
The scandal has already achieved something that Abu Ghraib never managed to do.
Spc Duncan said being ignored was the worst indignity
It has claimed the heads of three senior officials and made the White House panic because it offended the last remaining shoals of its dwindling bedrock support:
The troops, the warriors, the heroes who come from the red states in the heartland, who have stuck by the president even when the rest of the country didn't.
You don't mess with them!
I can just imagine how Donald Rumsfeld would have shrugged his shoulders, grinned from ear to ear and said something about trained killers and mould.
But as Army Specialist Jeremy Duncan, one of the soldiers who blew the whistle on Building 18, put it: "It's not so much the mould or the cockroaches, it's the fact they just ignored us for months on end.
"It was a question of basic decency."
Spc Duncan has a right to be upset. He sacrificed his left ear and eye to an Iraqi roadside bomb.
Bob Gates, the new secretary of defence, was hopping mad about the scandal.
There is clearly a new sharp wind of accountability blowing through the administration.
Rot too deep?
But despite the damage control the rot may have gone too deep.
That's the thing about mould. Once you let it spread, it's hard to eradicate.
Just as the heads stopped rolling in the Walter Reed scandal another ugly patch appeared.
This involves the sacking of eight US attorneys.
They testified before a Senate committee that they had been forced to step down because they didn't do the bidding of Karl Rove, the president's supreme fixer.
Their job is to prosecute acts of political malfeasance - but they all told the Senate they had been pressed by the White House to investigate Democrats before the elections last November.
All had immaculate records in office. All had been appointed by the Republicans.
And if these eight weren't doing their jobs, then others clearly were.
Under the Bush presidency, 375 cases have been brought against local politicians: 10 were against independents, 67 against Republicans and 298 against Democrats.
It has also emerged that Harriet Miers, the president's personal lawyer who never got a seat on the Supreme Court, suggested sacking all 93 US attorneys after the election - but Attorney General Alberto Gonzales says he advised against it.
President Bush has the discretion to hire and fire US attorneys.
He also likes to berate judges who legislate from the bench.
The list goes on. The verdict against "Scooter" Libby was rooted in the most difficult question of them all - the reasons for going to war in Iraq.
Ann Coulter made news with a cheap shot at John Edwards
It unmasked how the administration and in particular the vice-president went after a low-level critic of the war.
Then Ann Coulter, the leggy siren of the Republican right, told a Washington ballroom packed with GOP hacks that "you have to go into rehab if you use the word faggot".
It was a cheap shot but the audience lapped it up.
Could it be that the party of Abraham Lincoln is suddenly beginning to look like the Tory party in the dark, dank, dying days of John Major - nasty, niggling and doomed for defeat?
The search for a suitable candidate continues.
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