The campaign for the presidency in 2000 has had an Alice-in-Wonderland quality from the very start, but never more than the moment at hand. "Sentence first -- verdict afterwards" has nothing on this campaign. For the next week it will be "general election now, primaries to come."

This is the week the big dogs start to bark. For the next seven days, Vice President Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush will dominate the political stage almost as if they already were their parties' presidential nominees and this were Labor Day of 2000. First Bush and then Gore will jet around the country with huge entourages in tow. They will be chewed on and analyzed and compared and contrasted as if the election were just days away.

Bush begins his long-awaited, first campaign trip in Iowa today and will wend his way to New Hampshire on Monday after a stop at the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, on Sunday. As he exits the stage Tuesday, Gore will be warming up. On Wednesday, the vice president will formally launch his candidacy -- months earlier than planned -- from Carthage, Tenn. By the end of the week, he too will have toured Iowa and New Hampshire -- as well as California and Washington state.

Voters may view it with a jaundiced eye, if they watch at all. And months from now as the primaries approach and Bush and Gore are forced to fight for their nominations, the memories of this week -- and likely its significance -- will long since have faded. For now, however, Bush-Gore week may be touted as the political equivalent of High Noon.

Much of the hoopla is media hype. Given the buildup over Bush's first campaign trip, Bill McInturff, pollster for Arizona Sen. John McCain's campaign, joked, the past few days have seemed like "the lull before the D-Day landing."

But there other reasons Bush and Gore are drawing so much attention.

Bush's lopsided advantages in fund-raising, endorsements, institutional support and news coverage, have, in the estimation of a number of analysts, reduced the top tier of the Republican race to just one candidate: Bush. He is untested, has never run a national campaign, has not had much to say and has made some missteps this spring. But at this point, these analysts say, the GOP race is Bush against the field. His rivals are fighting to become the alternative should he stumble.

Gore has had a more difficult spring -- buffeted by criticism that his campaign has lacked focus and that his candidacy has been slow to take on definition. Getting whipped in the polls by both Bush and Elizabeth Dole has not helped either. As a result, his lone primary rival, Bill Bradley, has established himself as a credible challenger.

Still, as a sitting vice president, Gore enjoys many of the same institutional advantages as Bush -- and some Bush does not. He has the active support of the president, he leads the fund-raising primary against Bradley, he has support from a slew of other Democratic officials and he has the leg up on Bradley in the courtship of many key constituencies in the party.

Not that long ago, Tom Rath, an adviser to Republican Lamar Alexander's campaign, was warning reporters not to underestimate Bradley's strength in New Hampshire. Many people believe that's still the case, as the former New Jersey senator quietly builds organizations there and in Iowa. But this week Rath looked at the other side of the coin and concluded: "Gore is going to be the nominee, absent some extraordinary externality that befalls this administration. He's really got Bradley in the position of totally waiting for something to happen."

Although both campaigns see the coming week as the introductory phase of a much longer battle, Bush and Gore are approaching the task differently. Bush hopes to introduce himself slowly; Gore is eager to show quickly he is more than President Clinton's loyal sidekick and to steal a step on Bush.

Bush advisers said the governor's initial campaign trips will be used to introduce broad themes, not to unveil detailed policy positions. "There are three questions the people of Iowa and New Hampshire and some of the early states want to hear the answers to," a Bush adviser said. "Why are you running, in other words, what are your priorities? What are your principles and your core values? And thirdly, do you know what the job's all about? In other words, how do you see leadership?"

Policy details will come after the themes and values have been established. "If we get too far ahead of ourselves, people don't have a sense that he's up to the job," the adviser added. "There's a bar of acceptability over which he has to jump before he's able to spend a lot of time and a lot of effort making speeches to the Detroit Economic Club or the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco."

Through this tactic, Bush hopes to slow down the demand for position papers from the news media -- and barbs from rivals who want to pierce his armor by pinning him down on controversial issues. "At some point we'll have to respond to our Republican opponents and engage," one Bush adviser said. "But we're trying to put it off as long as possible."

Gore is more anxious to get to the meat of the issues, not only to move him out of Clinton's shadow but also to seize the middle ground politically before Bush can claim it. "The vice president is going to have to show leadership qualities," one adviser said. "Nobody knows who the vice president is. Part of what he's going to have to do is define himself and define himself on the issues.

Gore's announcement tour has been planned with the idea of planting markers at every stop. His opening speech in Carthage likely will focus on his biography and broad themes. From there on, however, he will use events in other cities to talk about specific issues. "What's most important in the vice president's mind is to begin a serious discussion of the issues and the challenges the nation faces and to begin to talk to America's families about how he'll meet those challenges," said Marla Romash, Gore's deputy campaign chairman.

Privately, Gore advisers say the more he talks about issues, the more they hope it will pressure Bush to define himself, and in so doing, have to choose between the GOP's conservative base and centrist swing voters. "This is a general election strategy," one Gore aide said. "This is a general election message."

Bush too is thinking about the general election as he launches his candidacy. Suburban moms and swing voters are at the forefront of his campaign's thinking as advisers plot strategy. But Gore and the Democrats appear far more aggressive in engaging with Bush, directly or indirectly.

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) has prepared a thick document detailing Bush's record as governor and there is nothing subtle about its message. The document attacks Bush as a weak leader tied to the "radical right wing" who lacks the experience to be president.

Democratic General Chairman Roy Romer spent a day in Iowa this week delivering that message in person, and Joe Andrew, the DNC chairman, was in New Hampshire the following day doing the same. Both then appeared at a breakfast with reporters in Washington, where the drumbeat continued -- as it will continue throughout Bush's campaign trip.

Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster not affiliated with any presidential candidate, summed up the challenges for Bush and Gore. "The challenge for George Bush right now is to figure out how to lower out-of-sight expectations without looking like he's taking the first step down the slippery slope toward oblivion," he said. "The challenge for Vice President Gore is to demonstrate that he truly has his act together and that the gaffes of recent months are the exception rather than the rule. There's a real irony in this. That is, who would ever have thought that the Democratic nominating fight could potentially be more competitive than the Republican fight."

Bush's rivals beg to differ with that perception. They know where the focus of attention will be in the coming week. After that, they argue, the real race for the nomination begins. "It's like a hurricane coming through and we're waiting for it to pass," said a McCain adviser.

Recognizing that reality, other GOP candidates are looking for ways to grab some attention. Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes recently began a $2 million, four-week advertising campaign and will have a big New York fund-raiser and campaign tour next week. McCain sent 50,000 videos to New Hampshire. Dole, Alexander and Ohio Rep. John R. Kasich will campaign in Iowa today, and Sunday, Dole's husband Robert J. Dole, who cast doubt about the seriousness of her candidacy recently, will join her for a day of campaigning in Iowa. "It's a sign we're not going to yield an inch to anybody," one Dole adviser said.

On the Democratic side, Bradley will spend the entire week in California. His advisers say Gore's announcement tour will not affect their plans. "They're running their campaign, we're running our campaign," said Anita Dunn, a Bradley adviser. "We've got enough to do." Republican pollster Robert Teeter, who worked for Bush's father, said the media hype overstates the significance of the coming week. "It's not like there's going to be one presidential debate and it's Tuesday night," he said.

But there is no question that the week marks the beginning of a new phase in the presidential campaign. As Democratic pollster Geoff Garin put it: "Everything up until now has been about post position. This is the point at which they are off and running, with two candidates who have been able to put themselves in very strong shape at the start of the race. But now they've got to go run the race."