It ain't over till it ... starts

In the Washington spin-o-rama, the 2000 presidential race is all but called. The rest of the nation hasn't even tuned in.

Washington has had that Disney World feel lately. The city is hot and sticky, tourists abound, and there is a constant spinning that is starting to make people dizzy. Normally sane people are acting like kids giddy from too many turns on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, proclaiming they know the fate of a presidential election that is still 16 months away.

The conversations here center on how Texas Gov. George W. Bush is destined to win in 2000 because Vice President Al Gore has all the charisma of Abraham Lincoln - not the real one, but Disney's mechanical version. And a lot of people have bought in.

Last week a woman who once worked for Mr. Gore told me she recently turned down a chance to rejoin the campaign because, she said, "Who wants to work for a man who won't win?"

This came as a bit of a shock to me. A certain amount of talk about "the unstoppable George W." is expected from a Republican. But when it comes from a former Gore staffer you know this city has spun itself into a frenzy.

It's time for a reality check.

There are any number of things we could cite to explain how this campaign - which hasn't even begun yet - isn't close to being over. We could talk about George Bush senior's seeming invulnerability in 1991 and how he was sent packing 16 months later. We could talk about how no one really knows much about George Bush junior, other than that he says he's a compassionate conservative, which certainly sounds nice, and that he looks good holding babies. We could also talk about Bill Bradley or John McCain or Gary Bauer or, if we really got bored, New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith and his Independent run. But let's skip all of that - especially Smith.

Instead, let's talk about the rest of the country outside of Disney World North, where people have the sense not to get wrapped up in Washington's rapid, often vapid, political dialogue.

This is something I know a little bit about having spent the first 18 years of my life in Macomb County, Michigan, perhaps America's most focus-grouped and analyzed municipality. Macomb is Holy Land to many Republicans. It's considered the birthplace of the "Reagan Democrat" and is considered pivotal to any GOPer seeking the presidency.

And here is a little scoop from Macomb County. My father, who might be considered a prototypical Reagan Democrat - he voted for Reagan and for Bush - says he is leaning toward Gore. How could this be? Hasn't he heard George W. has raised $36 million or that Bush leads Gore in almost every poll? Well, yes. He just doesn't care. Times are good. Crime and unemployment are down, incomes are up. And that bodes well for incumbents, la Al Gore.

The truth is that this campaign is really still primordial ooze - shapeless and unrecognizable. Despite the best efforts of Washington's 24-hour news-talk spin-o-rama trying to convince you that the 2000 campaign is being decided today (until tomorrow, of course, when they need a new topic), the fact is most voters aren't paying attention yet. And with good reason. Even if one assumes that George and Al advance - and that is no sure bet - it is tough to figure how the issues will break.

If Gore wins the nomination, he has to get past his "Hall of the Presidents" problem, and simultaneously claim success for Bill Clinton's "achievements" - a strong economy - and distance himself from Clinton's "errors in judgment." That's not an easy proposition, but it helps that he was around the Oval Office for the policymaking, and nowhere near it when the interns brought pizza by.

For Bush, things are more difficult. First, he has to walk a tightrope on issues like gay rights and abortion. Second, since the GOP has lost its big issues - like crime, welfare, and even taxes - he must convince voters that he will roughly follow the economic policies of the Clinton administration, an administration elected because voters were unhappy with George W.'s dad.

What does all that mean? Not a whole lot. Sixteen months is a long time. None of this takes into account any as yet unknown scandal, the state of the economy next November, and whether Bob Smith eventually confronts the reality that he has as much chance of winning this election as ... well, Bob Smith.

But don't expect any of that to change Washington's Disneyesque ways. This is a city that loves a good ride. It's odd, however, that the politically savvy here in the nation's capital can't grasp what any child familiar with theme-park rides knows: It's not the quick turns or sudden dips that really throw you, it's the constant spin.

*Dante Chinni, a Washington-based freelance journalist, is a frequent contributor to The New Republic and Capital Style magazine.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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