Those who wonder what the news media will do for stories now that President Clinton's impeachment trial is over needn't worry: The 2000 presidential election campaign is already upon us.
Two factors are pushing this race, like that in 1996, into an early start: time and money. Money, because it takes big bucks to buy the TV advertising needed in big states like California. Time, because California has moved its primary up to early March 2000, causing a number of states to seriously consider following suit. This could lead to an even more condensed primary season (and a longer general-election race) than three years ago.
The race for the Republican nomination is the most unpredictable. The GOP traditionally has had an "heir apparent" - whether a vice president such as George Bush, or an elder statesman like Bob Dole - whom the party apparatus rallied behind. That's not the case this year; the race is wide open, with several big "names" considering a run.
Among potential candidates:
Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Coming off a wildly successful reelection bid, the son of former President George Bush is widely seen as the front-runner among GOP voters. Early polls, which are generally meaningless, show him ahead of the likely Democratic nominee, Vice President Al Gore. Hundreds of GOP officeholders have endorsed Governor Bush, but some on the right doubt his conservative credentials. His behavior as a young man could become an issue.
Elizabeth Dole. Mrs. Dole, former Red Cross president and Cabinet official in the Reagan and Bush administrations, is popular with both conservatives and women. She also does well in the early polls, running ahead of Mr. Gore. But she hasn't declared yet, has never held elective office, and many people don't yet know her views on a lot of issues. Opponents are likely to try to discredit her major qualification: executive experience.
Former Vice President Dan Quayle. Mr. Quayle is definitely running this time after sitting out 1996. An unabashed social conservative, he's also trying to take on the Clinton-Gore administration on foreign-policy issues. That probably won't get him far. Quayle's biggest problem: His image, unfair and unkind, as a national joke. It's been eight years, but Leno and Letterman have already taken advantage of Quayle's return to the limelight. How he deals with his image problem will determine his success.
Lamar Alexander. The former education secretary and Tennessee governor never really stopped running after his defeat in the 1996 primaries. He has proven fund-raising ability and a well-knit organization in key states such as New Hampshire and Iowa. The question is whether he can develop the traction to move into the top tier of candidates. His best hope may be what almost happened three years ago: pragmatic and right-wing candidates eliminate each other, leaving Mr. Alexander to pick up the pieces.
Steve Forbes. The magazine publisher and flat-taxer has spent a lot of time cozying up to social conservatives in the last three years. He's got name ID, a personal fortune, and a broader platform than last time. But his hard-line stands and bashing of the GOP congressional leadership aren't likely to win him many friends among GOP voters, who are often more moderate than the activists Mr. Forbes courts.
Sen. John McCain. A strong conservative, the Arizona senator and Vietnam War hero has polished his image with moderates by courageous efforts for campaign-finance reform and a tobacco settlement. But those same stands make many Republicans grind their teeth. Fund-raising and organization will be challenges.
Rep. John Kasich. The Ohio congressman, the GOP's brightest budget Wunderkind since David Stockman, appeals to fiscal and social conservatives and young voters. But he's brash and sometimes makes unnecessary enemies. His biggest problems: Name recognition and the related difficulty of launching a successful presidential bid from the House.
Several other social conservatives are throwing their hats into the ring: CNN pundit Patrick Buchanan, who has announced his third run; Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council; Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire; and Alan Keyes, a radio talk-show host and former ambassador who is the only African-American in the race. They may be more interested in pulling the party to the right and ensuring that social-conservative positions are in its platform than in winning the nomination.
But Republicans can recapture the White House only by attracting the center, not by moving further right. That's especially true in battling a Democratic Party that has finally realized that the center is where the votes are.