The underdogs have had remarkable political years in 1999. Now Democrat Bill Bradley and Republican John McCain are about to enter an intense five-week period when their insurgent candidacies will be as much on the spot as those of Vice President Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
Bradley and McCain have risen to challenge two men once considered odds-on favorites to win their parties' nominations by bucking tradition and promising a new style of politics. In the next five weeks, they will learn whether their candidacies--and the so-called politics of authenticity--can survive the frozen battlegrounds of Iowa and New Hampshire and the full weight of the resources and party-backed organizations of the front-runners.
Bush has money to burn and what his aides tout as a broad and deep organization that can be marshaled in his behalf. Gore has no advantage over Bradley in money, but has what the former New Jersey senator has referred to as "entrenched power" to bolster his candidacy.
The final week of 1999 will be mercifully quiet, but January will be a blur, beginning with five candidate debates within the first 10 days of the month. Iowa's precinct caucuses will be held Jan. 24, followed by the New Hampshire primary Feb. 1.
"In many respects, what they [the candidates] have been fighting is a limited battle, highly focused on a couple of states," said Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution. "It's also very much focused on the activists and on the press. Now we're going to fairly quickly move into the formal process, in which resource disparities are not irrelevant."
The symbol of the closing days of 1999 was a pair of handshakes: one consummated across party lines, one rejected between the Democratic rivals. Together the two events captured the spirit of the most intensive preelection year in modern history.
The first came on a wintry morning in Claremont, N.H., at a campaign finance reform love-in that featured Bradley and McCain. "This is a different kind of campaign event, but for me, this has been a different kind of campaign," Bradley told the crowd assembled on the spot where President Clinton and former House speaker Newt Gingrich met in 1995 to pledge to work for campaign finance reform.
The second came three days later in the Washington studio of NBC's "Meet The Press," when Bradley spurned Gore's offered hand on national television as a "ridiculous . . . ploy." Gore had sought agreement to forgo television ads in the nomination fight and instead hold twice-a-week debates with Bradley. "I'm not someone who's interested in tactics, Al," Bradley replied.
Bradley and McCain agree on very little, including how to reform the campaign finance system. And yet the politics of 1999 drew them together as allies in a battle to create what they declared could be a different kind of politics. It was the day the insurgents linked arms, each criticizing the opponent of the other in a mutual non-aggression pact that represented a snub to the political establishments.
Gore and Bradley agree on quite a lot, even broadly on subjects where they disagree on details. But in the waning days of 1999, relations turned frosty between the two Democratic competitors. Mutual resentment seemed the order of the day when they met for their third debate of the fall. Gore resented Bradley's above-it-all image; Bradley resented Gore's old-politics tactics. Bradley's admonition to Gore to get real sounded the battle cry of the insurgents in 1999--a call to dispense with the old politics and summon the country to something nobler, or humbler, or both. "The point is, Al--and I don't know if you get this--but a political campaign is not just a performance for people, which is what this [proposal] is. But it is, rather, a dialogue with people, Al," Bradley said scornfully.
The invisible primary year of 1999 played to the strengths of the insurgents. Their call for a new politics came on the heels of a year of scandal and impeachment. The audience for politics was limited; the campaign was far more a dialogue with insiders, activists and the news media than the public at large. Polls counted considerably, and the tiny state of New Hampshire reshaped the entire contest when voters there put first Bradley and then McCain at parity with the front-runners.
But analysts such as Mann suggest the new year could be different. "The possibilities of people being enchanted by the novelty of a candidacy give way to more serious scrutiny about their suitability to office and the plausibility of their platforms," Mann said. "I think it's also the case that both Bush and Gore got an early warning. Maybe we'll look back on this as the most important thing."
The intensive campaigning in 1999 may have changed the roles of Iowa and New Hampshire in the nominating process. Traditionally, the Iowa caucuses winnowed the field of candidates and New Hampshire gave underdogs the chance to pull a surprise against a front-runner.
This year, the Republican field has been winnowed twice: the Iowa straw poll of last August knocked a number of candidates out of the race, and the increased competition between Bush and McCain has for now rendered the GOP race largely a two-person contest. The Democratic race has been a two-person contest from the beginning.
In New Hampshire, the underdogs are now the favorites, or close to it. "Both Gore and Bush can afford to lose New Hampshire and still do quite well," said William Mayer, editor of a new book about the nomination process, "but they really are must-win states for Bradley and McCain. If they don't win those, the race is over."
Gore advisers see Iowa as a contest that will create momentum for New Hampshire, and Bradley's campaign appears to see the state the same way. The former New Jersey senator has reserved somewhere between $600,000 and $800,000 in television time in Iowa for January and plans to spend most of his time in that state before the caucuses.
Although Bradley and McCain share the insurgent label, the dynamics of their campaigns are different. McCain remains a more classic underdog: less well-financed, less well-organized, less fleshed-out on issues than the favorite. His hope lies in puncturing Bush's image as a winner in hopes that the party establishment abandons the Texas governor.
"The question for McCain, because January will either be his month or not, is whether he is going to be like Gary Hart [in 1984] and score early and then have a difficult time parlaying that into the nomination," said Scott Reed, who managed Robert J. Dole's 1996 presidential campaign. "Has he done enough spadework in the last 60 days to prepare for that period when the spotlight's on him?"
Even now McCain is struggling to get on the ballot in New York, a notoriously complex system designed to frustrate candidates who do not have the party establishment's blessing. In addition, he plans on skipping the Iowa caucuses, hoping for a surprising show of support without an organization to turn out voters there.
But a strong second place by Steve Forbes, who does have an organization there, could rob McCain of being part of the story coming out of Iowa. Managing these expectations becomes part of McCain's challenge.
Bradley, in contrast, may have more money to spend than Gore. Certainly he has been outspending the vice president in Iowa and New Hampshire this year. Figures compiled by rival campaigns indicated that Bradley has outspent Gore on television advertising in those two states by at least $800,000.
Bradley's campaign also has used its financial and political resources to ensure that the former New Jersey senator will qualify for the ballots in all the key states, something most insurgents never accomplish. For that reason, Bradley advisers believe he is equipped to fight after New Hampshire.
Bradley has one other advantage that McCain lacks. After New Hampshire, the Republicans face a quick series of primaries leading up to the March 7 contests in California, New York and elsewhere. Democratic rules prohibit states other than Iowa and New Hampshire from holding early contests.
"If Bradley can manage to win in New Hampshire that gives him at least five weeks to consolidate his advantage," Mayer said. "McCain doesn't have that gap."
Finally, scholars Mann and Mayer say they are skeptical of the prominence that has been given to the power of authenticity propelling the McCain and Bradley candidacies.
Much of 1999, Mann said, has been driven by personality. But that may soon change. "The closer we get to real voting and away from the invisible primary activities, the more fundamental forces will emerge," he said.
McCain and Bradley have fooled the oddsmakers through the latter months of 1999, and who is to say that they have not done a better job of understanding the voters' mood than the two front-runners? In the next five weeks, that proposition will be put to a real test.
Get Set, Go!
The starting gates will open on a busy month of campaigning leading up to the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.
Jan. 5: Dem debate, N.H.
Jan. 6: GOP debate, N.H.
Jan. 7: GOP debate, S.C.
Jan. 8: Dem debate, Iowa
Jan. 10: GOP debate, Michigan
Jan. 15: GOP debate, Iowa
Jan. 17: Dem debate, Iowa
Jan. 24: Iowa caucuses, Alaska caucuses (R)
Jan. 26: GOP, Dem debate, N.H.
Feb. 1: N.H. primary