Bush vs. Gore? Let's not be too sure

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This is the 12th presidential campaign I've covered or kept a close watch on as a newsman. What I've mainly learned over those many years is that you simply must be cautious.

How many of us journalists, early on, were predicting that the 1968 GOP nomination would go to that energetic Michigan governor, George Romney! Earlier, much of the media thought they saw Hubert Humphrey beating out John Kennedy for the 1960 Democratic nomination. And before the 1972 primaries, many of us were certain that Ed Muskie would win the Democratic nomination and give President Nixon a run for his money.

Then there was that famous press blunder: the 1948 election when the media in all their wisdom elected "President Dewey." I watched that campaign from the sidelines at a Monitor newsdesk. I, too, thought Dewey would beat that rather mediocre fellow Harry Truman who, as years have gone by, has been accorded a high ranking by historians.

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So I'm humbled by memories of presidential campaigns and how I thought they would work out. My only comfort (if any) is that when I made those mistakes I was in the company of most of my fellow journalists and the pollsters.

This brings me to today's opportunity to get it wrong once again.

For some time now, the media and the polls have been leaning strongly toward nominating George Bush and Al Gore and then electing Bush. Typical is the Washington Post-ABC voter poll, which shows 56 percent for Mr. Bush, 37 percent for Mr. Gore, and 7 percent undecided.

Furthermore, the polls would indicate that the nominations are already pretty much set: Among all self-identified Democrats, Gore leads his only rival, Bill Bradley, 53 to 32 percent. Among Republicans, Bush is the favorite of 60 percent of those surveyed. Elizabeth Dole is second with 15 percent and the rest of the GOP field is in single digits.

So it's all over. Yes, more than a year before the election there is this feeling, among both press and public that it is all over. The factor that makes it all so final so early is money. Both Bush and Gore have collected so much money that no rivals can upset them. So it would seem. And the poll also shows that Bush will beat Gore because the vice president is closely identified with a Clinton presidency that has worn out its welcome with most of the public.

Still, my well-earned caution leads me to say: Something unforeseen could happen.

Romney told reporters he had been "brainwashed" in briefings by the US military when he was visiting our Vietnam forces. And down he went. Then Muskie wept when he told reporters about how the Republicans had played dirty tricks on his wife. And that was the end of Muskie. They sound like little "nothing" events, don't they? But somehow they turned winners into losers overnight.

And - oh, yes - Kennedy surprised just about everybody by showing that the voters would not reject a Roman Catholic for president when he turned back Humphrey in the Wisconsin primary. From then on, he was unstoppable.

I'd say that while Bush may commit some fatal gaffe, it seems more likely that Gore might be the one of the two to fail to win his party's nomination.

The Democrats like Gore but they want a winner. And I think that as time goes on and if Gore continues to be well behind Bush, the Democrats will look elsewhere. And that will be Mr. Bradley's opportunity. He might then pull off a surprisingly strong showing in an early primary, followed by a primary victory. And he would be on his way.

Even as I write I'm noting on my TV screen a poll that shows Bradley closing in on Gore among voters in New Hampshire and New York. So there's already growing evidence that my Gore-Bradley scenario is beginning to take shape.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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