Starting Early and Urgently
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 4, 1999; Page A1
Marine Two with Vice President Gore aboard lifted off the grounds of the Naval Observatory a little before 7:30 a.m. on March 15, bound for Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland. Gore was headed for New Hampshire and Iowa on what aides were billing as his first excursion of Campaign 2000.
Gore's sense of urgency reflected the extraordinary intensity of the opening round of the presidential campaign, a race that has developed earlier and more distinctly than many of the strategists on both sides anticipated.
By that morning, 10 Republican candidates were either in the race or at the starting gate; a handful of heavyweight Democrats once expected to run had dwindled to two: Gore and former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley. Even before the dates of all the primaries were established, political talking heads were busy handicapping a general election contest between Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R).
The flurry of activity underscored the high stakes of the 2000 election -- the first open presidential contest since 1988 and the first time since 1952 that control of both the White House and at least one house of Congress has been seriously in play in the same year. It illustrated as well the back-breaking financial and organizational demands of a nominating process that will produce Republican and Democratic standard-bearers in the first 75 days of 2000.
Some analysts have suggested the intensity of the campaign also reflects a desire to change the subject after a year of scandal, impeachment and political turmoil. But if anything, the first chapter of Campaign 2000 has been shaped by those very events: President Clinton's sexual relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky has injected character into the election equation. The Republican-led impeachment inquiry energized GOP conservatives but turned off much of the rest of the country. And the midterm election results helped unite the Democrats and threw Republicans into disarray.
In the coming months, other events will intervene, as the war in Kosovo already has demonstrated, to reshape the contest and possibly rearrange the standings.
But already, there is a clear hierarchy in the Republican race despite a crowded field of candidates. GOP strategists say the story on their side has become, for now, Bush against the field.
On the Democratic side, Gore was always destined to be the dominant figure. But with early polling showing Gore trailing both Bush and Elizabeth Dole, the story has crystallized along contradictory lines: How strong is Gore in the race for the Democratic nomination, and how weak is Gore as a general election candidate?
The early intensity derives from a variety of factors. One is the obvious need to bank as much money as possible, which has spurred fund-raising activity by all the candidates. Another is that the political parties and some of their interest groups have begun acting as if the general election is well underway.
Republicans have seized on Gore's inflated claim about creating the Internet and his lyrical description of boyhood summers spent plowing steep hillsides in Tennessee and clearing fields with a twin-bladed ax.
"Republicans were never able to pierce Clinton's political armor, no matter how much they tried," said Marshall Wittmann of the Heritage Foundation. "Now they believe Gore is susceptible to the most devastating weapon in politics, which is ridicule."
On the other side, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League has run ads attacking Bush and Dole for opposing abortion. The Democratic National Committee sent out a release last week accusing Bush of hiding from reporters, something Republicans see as an early countermove by the Democrats to raise the Texas governor's negatives.
"We could have the Democratic negative campaign this year," said Fred Steeper, a Republican pollster who will be part of Bush's operation. "The presidential campaign may be starting right now."
Finally, there is an apparent hunger in the media, now that the impeachment process is over, to move the story further and faster than some of the candidates had expected, with intensive coverage, early horse-race polls and forward-leaning speculation about a campaign that hasn't penetrated the consciousness of the public. Meaningless as many strategists believe the early polls are, there is pressure inside campaigns to respond to negative news.
Gore, for one, has accelerated his timetable and begun trying to define himself to voters earlier than planned. On the day he left for New Hampshire and Iowa, Gore was armed with a new, more personal speech, designed to do just that. A senior Gore adviser said the vice president had decided to take advantage of the early attention to the campaign.
"There is an opening to present the vice president as a candidate and get more attention and coverage than we'd otherwise get and to communicate in a more substantial way than you might expect 17 or 18 months before the election," he said.
The unexpected clarity of the Democratic race has forced both Gore and Bradley to move more rapidly to organize the key early states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Showing a presence in those states -- by sending in organizers or opening offices -- has taken precedence over conserving resources.
For Bradley, this early start is especially crucial. If he beats Gore in either of those states, the race will change quickly and fundamentally. If he doesn't, it will end there. "The Bradley campaign is sort of down to a two-day sale," said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin.
Republicans other than Bush and Dole face a problem of a different sort: They must do whatever they can to attract attention -- even if it means making themselves the butt of jokes. That is why on St. Patrick's Day, former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, magazine publisher Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes and conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan all found themselves in Nashua, N.H., at the Wild Irish Breakfast, an annual political roast and charity fund-raiser.
One speaker described Forbes's reaction to his first subway ride: "I never saw so many people. They were crowded in like caviar." Another said of Alexander: "Lamar actually experimented with having a personality in college." For the candidates, the only consolation was in knowing the GOP race will be over before next year's breakfast.
Presidential campaigns are episodic and unpredictable; defining moments often come clear only in retrospect. Looking back, say a number of political strategists, the most significant event of Campaign 2000 to date may have been last year's midterm elections, which were shaped by the impeachment process. Democrats, who gained seats, emerged united and energized. Republicans finished demoralized and in disarray. As a result, among the presidential candidates, there were clear winners and losers.
On the Democratic side, the winners were Gore, the principal beneficiary of a party that had united to defend Clinton against the Republican-led impeachment process.
"Within the Democratic Party, the predominant sentiment is to affirm Clinton's direction, of which Gore is the strongest representative," said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. "The mood of the Democratic electorate favors continuity, but Al Gore's got to go out and prove it."
To a lesser extent, the 1998 elections boosted Bradley, who found himself in a head-to-head contest with the vice president far sooner and at less cost than he ever imagined.
Late last year, Gore appeared likely to face a spirited, multi-candidate field of challengers. But one by one, all but Bradley passed up the race: Sens. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, civil rights leader Jesse L. Jackson and, most significant of all, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), who set his sights on winning back the House and ascending to speaker in 2001.
Had the election gone differently, had the party appeared fractured, had Clinton's support been less, Gore would have emerged a more vulnerable candidate and likely would have faced more challengers for the party's nomination.
Gore moved to exploit this sense of party unity by asking for and receiving Gephardt's early endorsement, unveiled amid much staff secrecy on the March 15 trip to New Hampshire and Iowa. The endorsement was meant to symbolize an easing of tensions between Clinton's centrist New Democrats and Gephardt's left-leaning, union-dominated, congressional wing of the party.
The Gore-Bradley contest means that for the first time in memory, the Democratic left will have no champion in the fight for the party's nomination. Whatever that says about the strength of the left, it also means Gore may not have to shift as far left during the nomination fight and potentially expose himself to Republican attacks in the general election campaign. Bradley could yet attempt to fill that void, but he has always resisted such political typecasting. "Bill's never seen this as a left-right thing," said one adviser.
Bradley's opening may come if the polls continue to show Gore losing to Bush or Dole in a general election, or if Democrats sense voters may try to punish Gore for Clinton's mistakes. Then Bradley, running as an outsider and as the repository for the anybody-but-Gore vote, could become dangerous.
On the Republican side, the midterm elections made winners out of Bush, the darling of a Republican establishment rattled by the party's tarnished image and hungry for new leadership, and to a lesser extent Dole, whose gender and non-politician appeal has created an instant stir on the campaign trail if not always among those in the political community.
"When we're writing the campaign histories in 2001, this chapter is very clearly going to be about George W. Bush emerging as a national figure and a political phenomenon," Garin said. He added: "In an odd way, George W. Bush is the winner of the impeachment process. The impeachment process so messed up the Republican Party that it created the logic that's brought him to where he is today."
In the aftermath of impeachment, "the national Republican Party is looking to be rescued by their nominee," said the Heritage Foundation's Wittmann. "There's a great desire among the national Republicans to have a communicator who can bring forth the Republican message in a way that doesn't alienate the center of American political life. The irony is they're looking for a communicator, but neither Bush nor Dole has hardly opened their mouth. There is more atmospherics than substance."
By now almost 800 Republican fund-raisers, politicians, political strategists and policy advisers have made the journey to Austin to offer support for Bush, and his campaign organization is the envy of every other campaign. He led other Republicans in fund-raising in the first quarter, with more than $6 million in contributions.
But Bush's strength is still mostly on paper. The voters will demand their say, and virtually every other campaign manager can sketch out a scenario to put their candidate into the thick of the race when Bush stumbles, as they all expect.
"The question," said a strategist for another candidate, "is can you hold on long enough until the voters turn for another look?"
However capable Bush's campaign has been in managing the first phase of his candidacy, the Texas governor has impressed fewer people with his command of the issues. He appeared wobbly on the issue of abortion when he was confronted with questions about his position last month. On Kosovo, he was slower than other Republican candidates to state a position, and when he did, the Wall Street Journal editorial page dismissed it as "so vague and timid as to be almost Clintonesque."
In Republican circles, Dole's campaign has been the biggest puzzle -- full of potential but slow to get moving. She is the only candidate able to compete with Bush for publicity, has drawn the biggest crowds on the campaign trail and offers the GOP a chance to win back female voters. But she raised well under $1 million in the first quarter, has spent little time in Iowa or New Hampshire and has been tentative in diving into difficult issues.
Her advisers are now working overtime to dampen the criticism that she has squandered the first three months of 1999. "The governor has had a good spring training," Dole spokesman Ari Fleischer said of Bush. "Sometimes spring training doesn't count in the regular season."
The Republicans appear headed for a bruising, ideological contest, driven by long-standing divisions and a debate over how to make up the ground lost in the past two elections. At heart, the party's conundrum is whether it can recapture the political center without alienating its conservative constituencies.
Bush, Dole, Alexander, Arizona Sen. John McCain and Rep. John R. Kasich are likely to use their candidacies to moderate the GOP image in an effort to expand the party's appeal to independent and swing voters. In contrast, Forbes, Buchanan, former vice president Dan Quayle, Gary Bauer and New Hampshire Sen. Robert C. Smith will demand the party remain true to its conservative doctrine.
For now, however, the war in Yugoslavia has pushed the presidential campaign back out of the spotlight. The war has created potentially serious problems for Gore, raised doubts about Bush, given other candidates like McCain a national platform and reminded everyone of how quickly events can change the terrain of a presidential campaign. The campaign has taken shape early, but the real engagements are yet to come.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company