The campaign of 2000 is starting a year too early for most voters, but there are reasons the politicians can't wait.

Everyone talks about the fierce competition for contributions and the pressure to organize for the earliest primary elections in history. But lost in all the focus on tactics and timetables is the biggest reason of all: The 2000 election has the potential to determine the direction of all three branches of the national government.

"This is as big as it gets," said Joe Andrew, chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "It's certainly the most important election of my lifetime."

A few blocks away on Capitol Hill, Republican strategists agree. With a new president to be elected, GOP control of the House and Senate hinging on a margin of only six seats each and enough vacancies looming on the Supreme Court to shift its ideological balance, voters will have a rare opportunity to put an indelible stamp on the entire federal establishment.

Add in the fact that only once every 20 years does a presidential election coincide with the census, which will be used when the state legislatures -- many of which are elected next year -- redraw the boundaries of all 435 congressional districts. What you have is a contest where the stakes could not be bigger.

Tom Cole, chief of staff of the Republican National Committee, pointed out that the last two times this 20-year cycle occurred -- in 1960 and 1980 -- voters chose to give dramatic redirection to government. In 1960, John F. Kennedy brought a new generation of Democrats to power as he succeeded Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1980, Ronald Reagan by defeating Jimmy Carter ushered in a conservative counterrevolution that continues today -- at least on Capitol Hill.

In part because of that history and in part because so many major national issues seem likely to remain unresolved before the election -- Social Security, federal education policy, Medicare and health insurance, and the shape of post-Cold War foreign and defense policy among them -- Cole predicts "this will be a big-ideas campaign."

Douglas B. Sosnik, a senior adviser to President Clinton, agrees. "It is likely that whoever controls the White House will set the political direction at least for a decade. The symbolism of entering a new millennium makes it even more probable this will determine our course for the future," he said.

On both sides, it is assumed that the 2000 contest will break all spending records. The courts have eased the restrictions on use of party funds to support candidates, and "soft money" contributions, which can go to the parties in unlimited amounts, are pouring in at an unprecedented pace.

There is, of course, no guarantee voters will choose to give either party a mandate in 2000. The pattern of divided government has become pervasive, and some students of voting behavior argue that at least a few voters deliberately split their tickets as a way of extending the "checks and balances" built into the Constitution.

Republicans and Democrats are shaping their strategies to avoid a split verdict. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) passed on the presidential race and joined Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) in an early endorsement of Vice President Gore, a move designed to head off any threat from former senator Bill Bradley (N.J.). On the GOP side, more than half the House members and a large contingent of senators have joined a majority of the party's governors in backing Texas Gov. George W. Bush against his 10 rivals.

On both sides, these officeholders hope to avoid a divisive nomination battle that could hurt their chances of winning the White House and Congress in 2000. Whether either set of endorsements matters much to the voters, the exceptionally early consolidation around Gore and Bush has reshaped the political climate in Washington.

Bill Paxon, former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), who retains close ties to the House leadership, said the GOP strategy is almost opposite what it was going into the 1996 election. Referring to then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Paxon said: "Newt thought we as the congressional majority could create an agenda and basically impose it on whoever became our presidential candidate. It didn't work. This time, everybody understands . . . the best thing the Republican Congress can do is clear the table on the things that are necessary . . . but not lock our candidate into any agenda he or she may not want."

Paxon said this strategy -- akin to Muhammad Ali's rope-a-dope style -- is accepted by conservatives and moderates, because "we've been to the abyss twice [1992 and 1996] and we need desperately to win back the White House. That's the only way anyone's agenda gets enacted."

Democrats are determined not to let the Republicans off that easily. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (R.I.), Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, said the reason his party will pick up at least the six seats each needed to regain control is that "when the Republicans pushed impeachment, they did a better job than we ever could have done in labeling them as extremists. It stripped the veneer of reasonableness right off them."

Kennedy's opposite number, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), chairman of the NRCC, dismisses Kennedy's theory. "The impeachment thing is gone. It's over. No one wants to hear about it."

Democrats also count on forcing Hill Republicans to defend other unpopular stands. Last week's House battle on gun control sets up that issue for campaign use, and there will be more such showdowns -- on issues from prescription drug benefits to minimum wage boosts -- if Democrats have their way. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) would like to mute the ideological battles with pragmatic compromises, as he did in averting a threatened shutdown of government over disputed census counting methods. But he cannot always influence the more combative elements in his caucus.

While more attention than usual focuses on the fight for House control, one Democratic strategist said "the 2000 contest is just the first act of a two-act play." It will not be until the parties battle in 2002 -- in a redistricted House -- that anyone will be able to gauge who is likely to be in control for most of the decade.

Cole says Republicans are operating on the same assumption. "There are so few House districts really in play," he said, "it's unlikely the swing will be more than 10 or 12 seats either way in 2000. Both parties will probably have over 200 members when the votes are counted next time." That would set the stage for another struggle in 2002.

The Senate races are likely -- as usual -- to have their own dynamic, because both sides usually can raise enough money to make challengers competitive in any state where opportunities exist. If first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton runs in New York, contributions undoubtedly will flow in from all over the country for her and her possible GOP rival, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Republicans go into the Senate race with 55 of the 100 seats, and have recruited strong candidates for the two states besides New York where Democratic incumbents are retiring -- Nevada and New Jersey -- as well as in Virginia, where former governor George Allen is challenging Sen. Charles S. Robb (D). But Republicans have shaky open seats in Rhode Island and Florida and their incumbents face potentially serious races in Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Vermont.

A senior Democrat acknowledged that many members of his party's congressional wing are quite content with the prospect of gridlock on major issues for the balance of this Congress: "They like the idea of running against a do-nothing Republican Congress and being able to paint bright yellow lines in the campaign between our position and theirs on Social Security, Medicare and education."

The same logic, he and others said, does not apply to the presidential race. "The 20 percent in the middle who decide elections don't want partisanship," he said. "Clinton understands that, but so does George Bush. It may be easier for Bush, as an outsider, to distance himself from `the mess on Capitol Hill' than it is for Gore," who is part of the Washington scene.

Whatever the shape of the 2000 battle, the rival strategists agree on the ground where it will be fought: the suburbs. The swing vote in the key states from New Jersey to California is found in communities such as Verona or Pasadena, where the lift of a rising economy and the tides of a changing ethnic and racial mix, concerns over schools, crime, health care and the culture create turbulent political crosscurrents.

Davis says the key for Republicans is to capture the "new economy" voters, who work in the information and high-tech companies. They tend to be conservative on fiscal issues but liberal or libertarian on social issues, posing a test to Republicans who also depend on support from voters who are most conservative on abortion, guns and homosexual rights.

Kennedy points out that, since the 1994 debacle, Democrats have won back suburban seats from Philadelphia to Kansas City to Seattle. But he acknowledges that first- and second-term Democrats in those seats could be in jeopardy unless the Democratic presidential nominee runs as well as Clinton did when he carried 24 of 28 key suburban counties in 1996.

That explains why party chairman Andrew says he has focused Democratic planning for 2000 on "the middle-class or upper middle-class suburbs. We're talking about people, the majority of them women, who likely have kids between 6 and 18. . . . They are more interested in the stock market than they were. They are also more attuned to environmental issues. They are focused on the future, on long-term issues, rather than instant tax cuts. Values are certainly important for them, but they don't define them as right or left. These are churchgoers. . . . They are very reluctant to let people ascribe morality to one party or the other."

While the focus is understandably on the voting for president and Congress, there are 11 gubernatorial elections and legislative contests in virtually all the states. Seven states have lower houses where a switch of six seats would alter party control; 10 have senates where a switch of three seats would do the same; and six others have both chambers within easy reversal range. Thus almost half the states, including such electoral giants as Texas, Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania, could be battlegrounds in legislative contests.

While a few states have set up nonpartisan boards to draw the lines for legislative and congressional districts, in most it is a political struggle. And the election of 2000 will determine which party has the upper hand when new census numbers are released in the spring of 2001.

In the 1990s, the shift of seats from the old industrial cities and states to the suburbs, the South and West made Republicans more competitive in the battle for the House. It was not an accident they overturned a 40-year Democratic majority in 1994. But Democrats now control the levers of redistricting power in California, which alone sends one-eighth of the House members to Washington, so Republicans feel a significant degree of vulnerability.

That sense of apprehension also applies to the Supreme Court, whose three oldest members are GOP appointees: Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist will be 76 next Election Day; Justice John Paul Stevens, 80; and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, 70. As Daniel E. Troy, a constitutional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in the Weekly Standard, the court "recently has decided by only one vote the constitutionality of racial preferences and districting intended to empower minorities . . . the right of death row inmates to litigate endlessly and the legality of direct or indirect aid to students who attend parochial school. The court is also narrowly divided on abortion." Troy said, "One new appointment alone could dramatically change the course of constitutional law. And most court-watchers believe the next president will have three openings to fill."

Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.

The 2000 Lineup

Thirty-three states will hold U.S. Senate elections . . .

. . . and 11 will hold gubernatorial elections.

SOURCE: National Journal's Cloakroom

In the House and Senate, Democrats need to gain six seats each to take control.

Current Senate seats





Current House seats





In the next administration, three Republican-appointed justices will be in their seventies or older.

Justice Born Appointed by

Stevens 1920 Republican

Rehnquist 1924 Republican

O'Connor 1930 Republican

Ginsburg 1933 Democrat

Scalia 1936 Republican

Kennedy 1936 Republican

Breyer 1938 Democrat

Souter 1939 Republican

Thomas 1948 Republican