After a preseason dominated by money, polls and endorsements, the presidential campaign of 2000 stands on the brink of something completely different: The candidates may start talking about the issues.

For Democrats Al Gore and Bill Bradley and for George W. Bush and his Republican opponents, Labor Day signals a shift in focus that could mark the beginning of a genuine debate over the direction of the country -- or an exercise in play-it-safe politics designed to tease but not deliver.

For most of this year, most of the candidates -- there are some exceptions -- have skirted the issues, preferring to speak about what they call "principles," "values" or "themes." But almost in tandem with children returning to school, the candidates seem to recognize that autumn is the time for getting serious.

Their pronouncements will play out against the backdrop of the ongoing struggle between President Clinton and congressional Republicans over tax cuts and how to use projected budget surpluses. That fight alone could define the terms of the general election long before the primaries have begun.

"There is pressure on the candidates, on Bradley, Gore and certainly Bush, to stake out the issues," said Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg. "Combine that with the budget battles in Congress and you're likely to have an issue phase in the 2000 presidential cycle."

The coming months will reveal how deep the divisions are in the Republican Party on issues ranging from China and trade to abortion, education and the role of the federal government, where Bush already has begun to move the party away from its anti-government consensus of the mid-1990s.

The debate between Gore and Bradley will test the strength of the Democratic left after almost seven years of Clinton's New Democrat governance and determine how long-lasting the Clinton imprint will be on his party's politics.

For Bush and Gore, the stakes this fall are especially high. "Both of the front-runners are going to try to find issues that appeal to the center while maintaining their base," said Marshall Wittmann of the conservative Heritage Foundation. "Their opponents will try to demonstrate that the front-runners are not faithful to the base and the heart of the party. That will be the primary issues battleground for the fall."

But if the two front-runners have that much in common, their challenges this fall are strikingly different.

For Bush, the GOP front-runner, this is the moment to shed the criticism that he is no more than skin deep on policy and that his candidacy is grounded in money and the aura of inevitability.

Bush already has begun the process of fleshing out his candidacy. On Thursday he outlined a plan to tie federal education funds for disadvantaged children to school performance. Earlier he issued a proposal for funneling more money to faith-based institutions to combat social problems. More speeches on education, the economy, defense and foreign policy are planned.

But already he is under attack from Democrats, who say his voucher plan would undermine public schools. The larger question he faces is whether his "compassionate conservatism" can survive unscathed as he wades into budget, tax and entitlement policies that have bedeviled Republicans the past five years.

For Gore, the challenge is almost the opposite. After almost seven years as vice president, his problem is not a perceived lack of substance specificity. Already he has issued detailed speeches on education, crime and, like Bush, the relationship between the federal government and faith-based institutions.

But even after months of trying, Gore has yet to stitch together the specifics of his various initiatives into a coherent package -- or a memorable theme -- that would distinguish a Gore presidency from Clinton III and make his candidacy more appealing to a skeptical electorate.

"Gore's challenge is to continue the transformation of the Democratic Party that the Clinton-Gore administration has gotten about three-quarters of the way done," said Al From, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

After Bush and Gore, Bradley has the most to prove this fall. For the former New Jersey senator, autumn means the time to stand and deliver. Throughout the spring and summer, he has portrayed himself as the candidate of big ideas and big ambitions, while pushing aside questions about the details until, as he put it, the voters would be paying attention.

Several questions confront Bradley, who formally launches his campaign on Wednesday. One is whether he can meet the test he has set out for himself: to come up with big solutions to big problems. Another is whether his policy prescriptions will mark a revival of the Democratic left or something barely distinguishable from Gore.

"The progressive wing of the party is dying for a champion in the field," said Robert Borosage of the progressive Campaign for America's Future. But it remains to be seen whether Bradley is "a reform candidate who wants to argue the big case about the direction of the country."

For the others in the Republican field, the autumn turn toward issues and ideas offers one more chance to slow Bush's momentum.

Can those on the right -- Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer, Patrick J. Buchanan -- stir grass-roots conservatives enough to present a serious challenge to Bush's center-tilting candidacy? Can Bush's establishment challengers -- Elizabeth Dole and John McCain -- demonstrate through their grasp of the issues that Bush somehow fails the gravitas test?

Bush advisers brush aside suggestions that their candidate won't measure up when the policy debates begin. They say that his first two speeches have attempted to push the envelope on GOP policy and that future policy rollouts will do the same. "I don't think the speeches will be disappointing," one adviser said.

But some analysts say Bush's agenda, so far, appears cautious compared with what other Republicans are saying. "I've been describing Bush's agenda, to the extent he's articulated it, as a Forbes Lite agenda," said Steve Moore of the libertarian Cato Institute. "It's the Forbes agenda without the rough edges."

Moore said that many of the issues Forbes promoted in his first presidential campaign four years ago have become litmus-test issues for Republican candidates: significant tax reform, privatization of Social Security, medical savings accounts, school vouchers.

Bush may embrace many of those ideas, but in a more restrained fashion. His tax plan will call for income tax rate cuts but may not seek dramatic reform of the tax system. He favors partial privatization of Social Security, but perhaps not as much as Forbes. And on school vouchers, Forbes last week was quick to criticize Bush's plan for waiting three years before making vouchers available to disadvantaged children.

Bush's other conservative opponents -- Bauer, Buchanan and former vice president Dan Quayle -- hope to challenge Bush not only on social issues such as abortion, but on foreign policy, where there are clear divisions in the party.

Most significant is China policy. "Most of the presidential candidates are straddling to the point of pants-splitting between taking a tougher line against China on the one hand but being pro-trade with China on the other," said Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Bush faces a delicate balancing act on China, given that the Clinton administration's policy is not significantly different from his father's.

But perhaps that is no different from the challenge he faces on issues across the board as he attempts to placate GOP conservatives while keeping an eye fixed on the suburban swing voters who ultimately will decide who wins in November 2000.

Bush's establishment rivals -- McCain and Dole -- have their own challenge. "They have to exploit the vulnerabilities of [Bush] and do what he has not done so far, which is substance, substance, substance," said Wittmann, an informal adviser to the McCain campaign. "In unison they need to challenge him to have a substantive debate in the fall."

McCain already has made his positions clear on a variety of issues, particularly in the foreign policy arena. Dole plans four major speeches over the next two months beginning with education this week and later to include drugs, taxes and government waste.

Regardless of what the other Republicans do, most eyes will be on Bush this fall. "We haven't seen him on his feet or seen him improvise," said Will Marshall of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute. "He hasn't really been put under pressure to define issues or defend them."

On the Democratic side, there is almost as much interest in what Bradley will have to say as in how Gore attempts to answer doubts about his candidacy.

Gore advisers expect Bradley will challenge the vice president from the left, if only because that is where frustration in the party is greatest over the Clinton-Gore record. "I understand why he's doing it," one Gore adviser said. "That's where the oxygen is."

Trade, health care and child poverty are likely areas of debate between Gore and Bradley. But the former senator may be hard pressed to deliver a policy prescription that meets his goal of universal health insurance for all Americans. And the child poverty issue sets up a clash between the party's New Democrats, who supported the 1996 welfare reform act, and those on the left like Bradley who did not.

"You can't be against welfare reform and for the abolition of child poverty," From said. "How can you be against reforming a system that both discouraged work and discouraged families when family structure is so critical to child poverty?"

But Eric Hauser, Bradley's spokesman, said efforts to pigeonhole Bradley along the ideological spectrum will prove fruitless. "The differences [with Gore] will emerge naturally," he said. But Bradley's goal is "not to look for places on the ideological spectrum" from which to run his campaign.

Gore's campaign plans a dual-track approach on issues this fall. He will continue to lay out detailed proposals on broad subjects, the next coming on Tuesday in Los Angeles on the issue of health care.

But Gore plans to pluck out specific pieces of his larger policy addresses -- education savings accounts or universal preschool, for example -- to show voters how a Gore presidency would affect them personally. These will be tailored to specific voting blocks, like union voters or women. Or they will be targeted to problems of importance to voters in key states.

"One of the things we've said is that our candidate is the candidate of ideas and substance," one senior Gore adviser said. "Now we will take pieces of that and drive it home to the grass roots."

But Gore's biggest challenge remains one he has faced from the start: proving he is his own man.

Borosage said Gore must show that he knows there is an agenda of unmet problems and that he has fresh ways of looking at them. "It's difficult to do, personally, and it's difficult to do institutionally," Borosage said. "But if we're going to see an Al Gore agenda that is coherent and his own, it's going to come in this time."


How important will each of the following be to you in deciding how to vote in the next presidential election in the year 2000: very important, somewhat important, important, not too important or not important at all? (Shown: Percentage who said "very important.")

Improving education and the schools: 79%

Handling the national economy: 74%

Managing the federal budget: 74%

Handling crime: 71%

Protecting the Social Security system: 68%

Encouraging high moral standards & values: 67%

Protecting patients' rights in the health care system: 65%

Protecting the Medicare system: 64%

Protecting the environment: 62%

Upholding the dignity of the presidency: 62%

Helping the middle class: 61%

Handling the issue of gun control: 56%

Handling foreign affairs: 54%

Cutting taxes: 44%

Reforming election campaign finance laws: 30%

The latest Washington Post and ABC News poll is based on random telephone interviews with 1,526 adults between Aug. 30 and Sept. 2. The overall margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points. Sampling error is, however, only one source of error in this or any other public opinion poll. Interviewing was conducted by TNS Intersearch of Horsham, Pa.