The 2000 presidential race left the starting line weeks ago, although few spectators are in the stadium. But already observers are complaining about the press coverage.
Some critics say the media have focused too much on superficialities - such as whether Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) did or didn't use cocaine as a young man - to the exclusion of the important public issues of the day.
It's too early to tell what the big issues of this campaign will be. That won't stop candidates from touting private polls that just happen to show the public considers their issues to be the most important and agrees with their stands on those issues.
In reality, though, the public isn't all that concerned about policy issues right now. The press and political elite are mostly talking to themselves.
There are many reasons for this out-of-syncness. The public isn't used to paying attention this far before the primary season. The condensed contest schedule, even tighter than 1996, hasn't sunk in. For most people, things are going pretty well, and they are focused more on matters close to home. Few "national" issues appear to affect their daily lives.
Perhaps Americans aren't all that political to begin with. Without a looming crisis, like war or economic crisis, interest in politics ebbs.
When the public starts following the campaign, it will make clear what it cares about by its candidate preferences. Until then, however, the press has to write or broadcast something. With little else to focus on, the Bush drug question got all the attention, whether the audience wanted it or not.
While in the view of many the press overplayed the Bush controversy, character is an issue too. Voters want reassurance that the person they place in the White House is going to behave appropriately there. If policy issues don't catch fire, character issues may well decide the race.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society