The year that precedes a presidential campaign is often described as the invisible primary for how it shapes the battles to come.
But that doesn't adequately capture the flavor of the Republican race for president this year. A more apt description might be the return of the smoke-filled room.
For the past three decades, presidential candidates have competed for their parties' nominations under reforms designed to diminish the power of political bosses and put voters in charge of the nominating process.
This year that notion has been turned on its head by the rapid coalescence around the candidacy of Texas Gov. George W. Bush. A powerful combination of Republican elected officials, party leaders and major contributors -- aided by news media that have given Bush outsized coverage at the expense of his rivals -- threatens to short-circuit the process and diminish the voice of the voters to a handful of states next year.
Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution said what has occurred this year "is what happened in the pre-reform period," when party leaders attempted to identify a candidate who could unite the party and win the White House and helped him toward the nomination. "It's striking how much that's happening," Mann said.
Marshall Wittmann of the Heritage Foundation contends that the forces that have brought the Republican contest to its current state are "unlike anything we've seen in both parties since Hubert Humphrey got the Democratic nomination in 1968."
At some point the voters -- most of whom have paid little attention to the campaign -- will begin to have their say in a more direct way than public opinion polls, which Bush dominates. But in the meantime, the campaign of 2000 has moved so quickly that there is a risk of further alienating an electorate already skeptical about how much influence it has in the political process. For the members of the Republican establishment, there is an additional danger: They risk crowning a nominee who may not be fully battle-tested by a genuine primary process.
Bush advisers scoff at suggestions that some sort of party elite has attempted to wire the nomination for their candidate, or that they can avoid a real fight in the primaries for the nomination. But there is no question that the second-term governor appears to have rewritten the rules that long have governed the nomination process by turning what others saw as a marathon into a sprint.
The first chance Bush's challengers will have to slow his momentum -- and theoretically the first time real voters will be heard from this year -- comes Saturday in Ames, Iowa, when the state GOP conducts a straw poll. Given Bush's commanding position in the race, the event has mushroomed into a major test of strength for the front-runner and particularly his rivals.
The straw poll will be held as part of a day-long Republican convention that will feature speeches by the candidates and plenty of free food and entertainment. All the candidates will speak, and throughout the afternoon, any Republican who lives in Iowa will be allowed to cast a vote for his or her favorite candidate.
The results of the poll are not binding; the event is mostly a chance for candidates to test their organizational strength for next winter's precinct caucuses. To vote, Iowans must buy a $25 ticket, but the campaigns will pick up the tab for their supporters and provide free transportation as well.
Bush is the heavy favorite and so even a tepid victory will take some of the luster away from his high-flying campaign. But as Bush has said, with $30 million in the bank, he has some staying power.
But no matter what happens to Bush, the straw poll threatens to do what the Iowa caucuses normally do, which is to winnow the field of candidates. Some candidates who finish well down in the pack will find it difficult to survive.
That isn't how things were supposed to work, given that the first real events of the nominating process are six months away. But the Republican race continues to unfold in unexpected ways. As Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism put it, "I don't think anyone has done anything to try to subvert the process, but it has snowballed on everyone."
What got us to this point? Mann says that this campaign is a logical extension of the changes that have been coming for some time. Over the past several elections, the primary season has become more and more compressed, as various states have moved their contests from April or May or June to early March, hoping to have a larger voice in picking a nominee.
Those changes, Mann said, "have created incentives for candidates and other participants in this process to try to shape the outcome many, many months before the first formal event. I think this has been underway for a period of time. It sort of leaps out at us now because of the peculiar circumstance on the Republican side."
William Mayer, a professor at Northeastern University, argued that even in the postreform era, when the power of party officials has been reduced, the system has been stacked in favor of front-runners. With the exception of Bush's fund-raising prowess, he said, "I don't think this year is that different from the last several runs through the cycle."
But a convergence of circumstances this year heightened the influence of GOP elected officials, contributors and state party leaders.
Two years ago, Republicans anticipated a wide-open fight for the 2000 nomination among a field of candidates that included no clear front-runner or even a genuine national leader. "You have to go back a long way to see a nomination as open at the very beginning as this one was," said Haley Barbour, former Republican Party chairman and a Bush supporter. "But from 1997 to 1999 that changed."
Other GOP strategists argue that the defining moment occurred last November, when the party suffered unexpected losses in the midterm congressional elections and then House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) suddenly resigned.
With the congressional wing of the party in chaos, Republican elected officials looked desperately for someone who offered a way out and quickly settled on Bush, who had just been reelected in a landslide with significant help from Hispanic voters. "What no one anticipated was the environment around his candidacy would create such demand," said Ralph Reed, a GOP strategist who is a Bush campaign adviser.
Bush's campaign then devised a new way to seek the nomination.
The old rules dictated that candidates spend weeks or months quietly campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire, talking to voters and slowly building support. These rules seemed tilted against the candidacy of a sitting governor from a big state, who could not spare the time away from home for the endless rounds of politicking that were required.
"Bush has reinvented the primary process," said Democratic strategist Brian Lunde. "It can be over before the voting begins. They found a way to capitalize on all these forces that were propelling him."
Bush accomplished this by adopting what one GOP strategist called "the blitzkrieg approach" to the nomination fight. "They understood that they could try to shoot the moon and turn the traditional timing of a presidential campaign on its head and possibly succeed," he said.
Months before Bush formed his presidential exploratory committee, advisers were putting in place an elaborate fund-raising network that would be ready to begin harvesting checks once Bush announced the committee. At the same time, the campaign helped to orchestrate a carefully timed rollout of appeals from state legislators in February and early March urging Bush to become a candidate.
Designed to appear spontaneous, the exhortations had the desired psychological effect on the party, which was to generate even more grass-roots support from rank-and-file elected officials. "People saw the train was leaving the station and they wanted to be on board," the strategist said.
Bush's campaign advisers discount the notion that they created the demand for Bush. "I don't know that it's anything we set out to create," one Bush adviser said. "But it was a byproduct of a pretty aggressive effort to ask people for their support and campaigning in a pretty hard manner."
Finally, Bush used his fund-raising prowess as another indicator of support, shattering all records by raising $37 million by June 30 from about 75,000 contributors. The money gave Bush a lopsided financial advantage over all his rivals except the self-financed Steve Forbes. But more than that it helped cement the power of the party elites in driving the nomination process long before the voters checked in. Mann said the fact of raising the money became more important than having it to spend. "My own view is that the money is much more important as an indicator of strength than as a source of real influence," he said.
The notion of a return to the smoke-filled room may be an imperfect metaphor in some respects, however, for it suggests that the party bosses are in effect dictating to the people. In this case, say various political analysts, party officials have been extraordinarily sensitive to public opinion.
Through much of this year, polls have been the proxy for voters, and after losing repeated battles for public opinion to President Clinton, GOP leaders and elected officials appear more sensitive than ever to the power of the polls, which show Bush the overwhelming favorite of Republicans to be their nominee and leading Vice President Gore in presidential trial heats. "The Clinton effect is that polling dominates," the Heritage Foundation's Wittmann said. "That in part explains the infatuation of the Republican establishment for Bush."
But if there are understandable reasons why the party elites have had such influence in shaping the GOP race this year, there are potential risks as well.
Candidate Lamar Alexander, who is running the old-fashioned way, warns that the way the year has unfolded threatens to subvert the entire process, giving too much power to money, party leaders and the news media.
"I think the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary are at risk," he said, arguing that future candidates will take a page from Bush's book and skip the intensive, face-to-face campaigning that he said is crucial to a candidate's understanding of issues and the mood of the country.
Others fear that the dominance of the party elites this year could mean an even shorter primary season than the now-compressed calendar suggests. They say that Bush could effectively wrap up the nomination after the first two or three contests, long before he is fully tested.
Wittmann said the combination of front-loaded primaries, a news media virtually obsessed with Bush at the expense of other candidates, and the dominance of party officials could generate voter backlash. His worry is that if the nominees are picked without an adequate voice from the voters, there could be "a severe case of buyer's remorse."
But Mayer said there is plenty of time for voters to change the direction of the Republican race. "My sense is that lots of voters will feel dealt out of it at the moment because it's eight months before most of them have a say," he said. "But the bottom line is that none of Bush's current lead in the polls will make a difference if he doesn't win the primaries."