The status of the 2000 presidential race in a nutshell: Texas Gov. George W. Bush is way, way ahead in the contest for the Republican nomination. And he steamrolls either potential Democratic nominee, Vice President Al Gore or former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley.
That's what the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll says, anyway. But such surveys have limited meaning at this early date - after all, Republican Bob Dole at this point in 1995 was way ahead in New Hampshire but ended up second. Even so, they do affect - perhaps too much - the perceptions of financial donors, party activists, and the media.
Concern that Mr. Gore cannot beat Mr. Bush - a perception fed by poll after poll - has helped boost Mr. Bradley's candidacy. Also hurting Gore is the disenchantment much of the public feels toward President Clinton. Gore could end up the big loser from the impeachment wars.
Nationally, Mr. Bradley continues to gain on the veep. He's whittled a Gore lead of 63 percent to 30 percent in mid-September down to 51 percent to 39 percent. But presidential primaries are conducted on a state-by-state basis, and here the news is even better for Bradley. He's even or maybe ahead in the key states of New Hampshire and New York.
That's a big reason Big Labor moved to endorse Gore this week. The AFL-CIO worried that failure to back the Tennessean now would be kicking him while he was down, hastening his slide. But the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers aren't going along with the endorsement, thus diluting its impact.
Still, Gore's not quite the underdog. He has an incumbent's advantages and the president's active backing. And some evidence shows that Bradley's support may be shallow.
The polls affect the GOP side of the ledger by chasing would-be donors away from other candidates and toward Mr. Bush. At this point, Elizabeth Dole, who gets 11 percent of those surveyed compared to 60 percent for Bush, Sen. John McCain, who gets 8 percent, and the remaining GOP hopefuls can only hope the Bush bandwagon busts an axle.
But when the public starts to pay attention to the race, as it will over the next few weeks, all this could change faster than the weather on New Hampshire's Mt. Washington. As voters get to know more about the candidates, their opinions may well shift.
Then there are the wild cards. Will Pat Buchanan pick up the Reform Party's hand? Will he have to trump real-estate magnate Donald Trump for the nomination? Will some Hollywood celebrity meld into the Democratic race, drawing away just that fraction of voters from Bradley or Gore that throws the race to the other?
Despite the polls, this race ain't over yet.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society