It was all perfectly clear to me 11 months ago. Vice President Al Gore would breeze to the Democratic nomination to succeed President Clinton. The only interesting element left for Election 2000 was whether the Republicans would show the good sense to nominate their brightest star, Texas Gov. George W. Bush or, by forcing him to meet the party's odd notions of proper conservatism, litmus-test him into oblivion.

And where are we now? Gore is hanging on for dear life, on the verge of being out-charisma-ed by (of all people!) Bill Bradley. Whichever of these two soporific Democrats survives to nomination could be a sitting duck for a strong GOP challenger. George W., meanwhile, is busily confounding the Republicans by forcing them to meet his standards of "compassionate conservatism."

I still don't know why Gore can't get his campaign off the ground. He had all the advantages of incumbency--the early money, his pick of the issues and a still-rosy economy--without the moral and political baggage of impeachment.

Sure, he's less than scintillating, but we've known that forever. Indeed, his best shows have come when he's mocking his own congenital stiffness. Sort of like Dan Quayle making potatoe jokes.

Put him up against a smooth-talking, personable charmer like Clinton, and Gore is a goner. But losing virtually all of his lead (and money-raising advantage) to Bradley? Reminds me of the summer my father used to talk about when it was so hot he saw a dog chasing a rabbit--and both were walking.

Bush is letting them walk, turning his attention to his own party, which, he said the other day at the Manhattan Institute, has "focused on the national economy, to the exclusion of all else--speaking a sterile language of rates and numbers, CBO and GNP," too often "painted an image of America slouching toward Gomorrah" and--perhaps most stinging to congressional Republicans--"confused the need for limited government with a disdain for government itself."

The speech came just days after he criticized a Republican tax plan as an attempt to "balance the budget on the backs of the poor."

Meanwhile, Gore was trying to energize his campaign and spruce up his image by (1) moving his campaign headquarters out of Washington to Nashville (thereby distancing himself from what should be his strength) and (2) hiring Donna Brazile, who, as they say, happens to be black, as his campaign manager. Both moves could help. Nashville's a fine town, and likely a comfortable home base for the Tennessean. Brazile is smart, charming and a formidable political operative. The point, though, is that Gore's moves seem symbolic while Bush's seem surprisingly substantive.

Probably none of it means much. Gore is quietly seeking to solidify his natural base (he's also been reaching out to labor, even courting an endorsement from the Teamsters), and Bush hardly intends to permanently alienate any sizable group of Republicans. (His people already have been saying that his criticisms were less of the party than of its public image.)

In truth, what George W. appears to be doing, with his criticisms and his call for a "compassionate conservatism," is trying to move his candidacy into the political center--just as Clinton did with what one might have labeled "stern liberalism."

If so, it could be a smart move. Go to the extremes, and you might elate a few extremists who in any case have nowhere else to go, but you risk alienating a lot more people than you win. From the middle, you can reach out in both directions.

It's what successful candidates from both parties have done over the years, and it's what Bush himself managed to do so well in Texas. His easy reelection last November--in a season that was an electoral disaster for his party--was the result of his success in reaching out to all sorts of people, including many who don't particularly associate themselves with the Republican Party.

The thing to remember is that while this has been an interesting week in an otherwise fairly dull campaign, it's still just a week, not a forecast.