It's five months before voting begins in party primaries for the 2024 US presidential election, but both races are starting to look decidedly over. No remotely serious Democrat challenging US President Joe Biden, and former president Donald Trump appears increasingly unbeatable among Republicans. That's great news for Mr Biden.
The plot has thickened somewhat lower down in Republican ranks, with Florida governor Ron DeSantis stumbling, dropping in important state polls including first-to-vote Iowa, and abandoned by major donors. Rising is South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, the only prominent African-American Republican.
Mr Scott has gained quiet support among establishment leaders and has proven a fundraising tornado, gathering over $21 million in this year's second quarter. But a New York Times investigation revealed a whopping six million of those dollars were dispensed without meaningful reporting to recently established companies without any known history or leadership.
Between April 1 and June 30, his campaign paid a pop-up company with no online presence or other clients $4.3 million for vague services. The identity of its only purported representative, Barry M Benjamin, couldn't be established by the Times or other media. Mr Benjamin was also the only reputed official of another company that received almost $1 million from the Scott campaign.
Mr Scott is using a practice pioneered by Mr Trump and his family members in 2016 and, especially, 2020, of funnelling donations into pop-up companies for practically unspecified services. The government watchdog organisation that is supposed to police campaign financing, the Federal Election Commission, seems permanently deadlocked in a partisan stalemate, and has been unable and unwilling to act against this growing form of corruption, especially on the Republican side (although Democrats will probably eventually follow suit). So, Mr Scott is likely to get away with it.
This level of wealthy and quiet establishment support reflects Mr Scott's potential viability as a general election candidate. He's almost tailor-made for the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan and George W Bush: a relentlessly upbeat and cheerful African-American campaigner who insists his own success is proof the US has overcome its racist past, relatively youthful at 57, a hard-core Christian fundamentalist, and a small-government conservative with libertarian leanings. But in 2023, such a candidate probably doesn't stand a chance.
The biggest question is whether the rising star is really hoping to overtake Mr Trump, position himself for 2028 or, as most pundits argue, angle to be Mr Trump's vice-presidential nominee.
Mr DeSantis is still polling second to Mr Trump nationally, but a recent New York Times/Siena College poll found the former president not only commanding a vast 37-point lead over the Florida governor, but also beating the combined field of all other candidates with ease. His support cuts across all demographic, ideological and regional groups, and appears to represent something like a consensus among Republican voters.
It's almost too late for any credible Democrat to create a viable campaign to challenge Mr Biden. Given the recent poll numbers, which aren't out of sync with most other surveys, Mr Trump may similarly have the Republican nomination virtually wrapped up.
Barring unforeseeable circumstances, 2023 could prove the earliest moment in modern US political history that the presidential nominees of both parties emerged in such a clearly obvious fashion, possibly with no real fight on either side.
Mr Trump's legal woes could theoretically convince enough Republicans to abandon him, but why would they suddenly change their minds given what is already established? One possible, albeit unlikely, answer could lie in the superseding indictment filed by special prosecutor Jack Smith in the purloined documents case.
The new charges purportedly tell a stunning saga of bungled criminality. They massively raise the stakes in this looming trial set to begin in May next year, while introducing a new character and third defendant, Carlos De Oliveira, property manager at Mr Trump's Florida hotel, to the drama.
According to the updated indictment, Mr De Oliveira worked closely with Mr Trump's original co-defendant, Walt Nauta, in the former president’s crude attempts to hide purloined documents from the FBI and his own attorney, Evan Corcoran. The original indictment outlined how Mr Nauta allegedly moved boxes of documents around the property so Mr Trump could remove whatever he wanted to surreptitiously and unlawfully keep before a scheduled search by Mr Corcoran on June 2, 2022.
After his search, Mr Corcoran gave the FBI 38 classified documents along with an untruthful affidavit signed by another Trump attorney, Christina Bobb, falsely attesting that no additional documents remained un-surrendered.
The plot fell to pieces when, on June 23, prosecutors told Mr Trump's attorneys they had learnt of extensive security camera footage they were preparing to subpoena.
Mr Trump and his two subordinates then attempted to get the footage, which they knew would record how and when documents were hidden from the FBI and Mr Corcoran, erased in an absurd series of slapstick misadventures and inane pratfalls.
The pilfered documents trial may well hinge on whether prosecutors can prove these new allegations. If so, they would incontrovertibly establish the most straightforward form of obstruction of justice imaginable: a conspiracy to destroy and hence conceal key evidence. If the government shows that "the boss” indeed ordered his minions to erase the footage, perhaps with Mr De Oliveira testifying against him, Mr Trump will surely be convicted of numerous serious felonies.
However, if the government fails, these explosive new allegations may become a textbook example of the backfiring perils of overcharging. If jurors conclude the government was overstretching on the most disturbing allegations, they may disregard the whole case and acquit everyone.
Astonishingly, it doesn't appear that any of this alleged criminality is, or could be, capable of seriously eroding Mr Trump's astonishing popularity among Republicans of literally every variety. When he boasted in 2016 that he could "shoot someone on Fifth Avenue" and not lose base supporters he was, amazingly enough, not exaggerating at all.
This may all be very bad for the country, but it's very good for Mr Biden. Even his biggest worry, inflation, appears to be unexpectedly quickly coming under control. Mr Scott could give the ageing President a tough battle for the White House. Even the 44-year-old Mr DeSantis might pose a tricky challenge. But, despite Mr Trump's overwhelming popularity among Republicans, and the number of Americans who will vote for whomever their party nominates, the almost equally elderly former president is looking increasingly like the ideal opponent for Mr Biden.