The 2000 Campaign Precampaign

Article excerpt

"Every election cycle has its own personality," says veteran political analyst Charles Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report.

"The unique stamp on this year's race," he continues, "is the single- minded focus among Republicans to win back the White House and the comparable single-minded focus among Democrats to win back the House of Representatives. This year, that's where the energy and the hearts of the two parties are focused."

Indeed, it's that focus that has kept this 1999 leg of the 2000 presidential election race quite static.

When it started in January, Texas Gov. George W. Bush was the leading GOP front-runner, and Vice President Al Gore was the leading Democratic contender. Now, 11 months later, both still appear to be the likely nominees of their respective parties. And, except for three dropouts from the Republican field, the same cast of secondary candidates is still in the hunt.

But the frustrations of GOP conservatives with their likely nominee are there, too. Although Bush comes with a strong Republican family pedigree and has been twice elected governor of the second-largest state, some in this wing of the party still view him and his campaign of "compassionate conservatism" with suspicion. Many conservatives fear that, since he has gotten this far without having to undergo a grilling on each of his policy positions, the nominee-in-waiting may in the end prove not conservative enough to warrant their full support.

Likewise, many Democratic insiders have some wariness about the fact that their front-runner has consistently placed second to Bush in almost a year's worth of national polling surveys. And the narrowness of their field means that, should opinion within the party shift away from Gore early next year, there's only one place to go: Bill Bradley, a candidate whose low-key "listening tour" campaign style has been enigmatic and who has staked out a sharply liberal position on issues from welfare to internationalism.

And Democrats are also seriously distracted by the real possibility that they can take back domination of the House (where they are now only 5 seats short of control) and make some gains in the Senate next year.

In the House, several dozen races are toss-ups, so Democrats can smell potential victory.

Of the 33 Senate seats up for grabs, 19 are held by the GOP and 14 by Democrats. And although each party has tough open-seat contests to worry about, Republicans have to defend 6 incumbents in various stages of vulnerability versus only 1 vulnerable incumbent Democrat.

While Democratic control of the Senate is a real stretch (they'd need every single tight race to go their way), it is not impossible for Democrats to make some gains there and narrow the GOP margin of control in that chamber.

THE GOP FIELD

On the Republican side, the large array of presidential candidates is still viewed by both political analysts and likely GOP primary voters (according to public opinion surveys) in the same ranking as when they started at the beginning of the year.

Bush, 53, is far and away the front-runner, followed distantly by a second tier of candidates consisting of wealthy publisher Steve Forbes, 52; former Labor Secretary and Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole, 63; and Arizona Sen. John McCain, 62.

The bottom tier of candidates is crowded with social-issues conservatives such as columnist Pat Buchanan, 61; former Vice President Dan Quayle, 52; former Family Research Council President Gary Bauer, 53; radio talk show host Alan Keyes, 49; and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, 65, who came to the race in midsummer.

And three candidates have left the field: former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, who dropped out soon after the Iowa Straw Poll in August; Ohio Rep. John Kasich, who bowed out in July and endorsed Bush; and New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith, who first said that he was running for president then left the Republican Party in August, flirted with accepting the nomination of the American Taxpayers Party, and finally pulled out of the race for that party's nomination. …