With barely a year left before the United States selects a new president, the 2000 campaign is not about the ideology of any candidate -- unlike 1964, which was about Barry Goldwater's conservatism; 1972, which was about George McGovern's liberalism; or 1988, which turned out to be about Michael Dukakis's cultural values.
Nor is this campaign about any one dominant issue, as the troubled economy was in 1992, when challenger Bill Clinton defeated incumbent George Bush.
That year voters were open about seeking in a president "somebody who understands what I am going through." This time, instead of somebody who understands us, voters appear to be looking for somebody to look up to.
On an October weeknight, seated behind a one-way glass wall, I listened for more than two hours to 12 middle-class Democrats express their feelings and thoughts about the condition of their country and about the strength and weaknesses of its leaders, both current and would-be.
Asked to list their living heroes by pollster Peter Hart, who deftly conducted the discussion, none of the 12 could name one. But Howard Jacobs, a physician, probably spoke for most of the group when he added that not only did he not have a hero, but "my children have no role model or hero, and that is very troubling."
And what about the two-term Democratic president now in the White House? Just three of the 12 would be interested, if he were eligible, in a third Clinton term. When asked for a word or phrase to describe their feelings about Clinton, the Towson Democrats were harsh: "untrustworthy," "slick" and "dishonest" were among the more polite answers.
What qualities are these voters looking for in 2000? Ruth Collison, an artist and silversmith as well as a homemaker, answered: "I'm just so tired of the scandals. I'm looking at the person this time." Wedding photographer Jerry Schunick seeks "someone I can look up to and respect."
The value of sessions such as the one in Towson is obviously not in the size of the sample. Twelve subjects is an unreliable and unrepresentative statistically. But what can be illuminating are the depth of the feelings behind the numbers and the words that people use to provide insights not available in national surveys. So the fact that the Towson 12 split evenly when given a choice between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, while voting 12 to 0 for Bill Bradley over Bush, is not really significant.
But what ought to concern the Gore camp is that after the Towson Democrats viewed video clips of Gore and Bradley delivering stump speeches earlier this month in Iowa, individuals who had begun the evening as Gore supporters or undecided switched to Bradley.
Reesa Luger, a housewife who had declared herself for Al Gore, found that the words of the low-key Bradley (whom she admitted she had known next to nothing about) "made you feel good about your country." The rumpled Bradley delivery worked for Ruth Collison too, who had been undecided. "He doesn't have that polished performance; he seems to be talking to everybody in the room."
Gore's Iowa speech did not play well in Towson. The previously undecided Kevin Westreich, an insurance claims examiner, found a "wooden persona" who was an "overly scripted, highly polished politician."
Noel Sills, a 20-something account executive, who earlier had listed herself for Gore changed her mind. "He just doesn't compare to Bradley."
The Democratic race is far from over. Based on the testimony from Towson, it will be no cakewalk for Al Gore. But as of now, it will be about voters seeking leaders who are authentic and genuine. And it will be about our looking for somebody to look up to.