WHEN THE presidential campaign started -- was that six months ago? a year ago? -- few predicted a noble exercise in democracy. The Republican and Democratic establishments had already anointed front-runners, who were expected to rely upon the quirks of the campaign system to keep rivals down. Now, a week before the first contest in Iowa, some of the gloomiest expectations seem in hindsight to have been exaggerated. But certainly not all.
As it turns out, neither party is staging a coronation. On the Republican side, John McCain has mounted a worthy challenge to George Bush, and apparently leads in New Hampshire; on the Democratic side, Bill Bradley is pressing Al Gore. Because the races are closer than expected, they also have been more revealing. Messrs. Bush and Gore have been forced to abandon their early tactic of ignoring opponents and have instead joined in multiple debates with them. They have been obliged to describe and defend their policies and to display something of themselves.
Moreover, the pessimists' fear that a close contest would inevitably be dirty has proved only half correct. Mr. Gore has fired some mean shots at Mr. Bradley, seeking to tar him as disloyal to his party and taking an ancient Senate vote on flood relief out of context. Mr. Bradley has fired back in kind lately, dredging up Mr. Gore's record on race and tobacco from the 1980s in order to embarrass him. But for much of the time, both candidates have resisted the temptation to go negative, while the two leading Republicans have been positively civil.
The expectation of twin coronations was fueled by money and by the connected issue of the primary schedule. It used to be that lulls between important primaries gave challengers an almost level playing field. They could campaign door-to-door in Iowa and New Hampshire, hoping that a strong showing there would allow them to raise cash in time for the next contests; success in those would yield a few more dollars for the next round, and so on. But this year's front-loaded schedule forces candidates to fill their coffers ahead of time. Hence the prediction that front-runners who began with the most money would prove unassailable.
Again, that prediction has proved too pessimistic. For one thing, money donors have not invested exclusively in the presumed front-runners, at least not on the Democratic side: Starting around the middle of last year, they opened their wallets as eagerly for Mr. Bradley as for Mr. Gore. For another, opinion polls have played the role formerly played by primary votes in validating candidates. Mr. McCain's strong ratings in New Hampshire have boosted his money-raising prowess.
In many ways, therefore, democracy seems unexpectedly healthy. Yet complacency would be mistaken. The fact that polls have replaced real votes in validating candidates is unsettling: It is likely to reinforce suspicions about the impotence of the ballot box, and to depress turnout.
Besides, it is too early to conclude that electoral competition thrives despite the influence of money. Shoe-string McCain leads in New Hampshire, but only in New Hampshire; elsewhere the Bush juggernaut is dominant. The post-primary contest looks even more lopsided: Mr. Bush, assuming he is nominated, will have millions more to spend than whichever Democrat he confronts. Finally, if Campaign 2000 so far seems pleasantly free of the taint of party-raised "soft money," that is because the parties will only weigh in once the primaries are done.
The case for campaign finance reform therefore remains pressing, and so is the case for a review of the primary schedule. The front-loading needs to be corrected, and reformers in both parties have a plan to fix this problem. They deserve wider support.