Campaign 2000: time to tune in

It might help you to know that not much has happened. While you were away tending to holiday shopping, preparing the underground bunker for Y2K, watching Puffy Combs and Jennifer Lopez get arrested, the presidential campaign rolled quietly along.

The speeches have developed more of the "I love a good food fight" tone, but essentially you didn't miss much.

That all changes starting this week, however. Even if you have only a slight interest in who will next lead this nation, it is time to start taking notice - and quickly. Because the primary season, once an endurance test for presidential aspirants, has become a pop quiz for the electorate.

Ready or not, over the next 10 weeks voters will go to the polls and decide who will win the Democrat and GOP nominations and advance to the presidential bonus round in November.

This, despite the fact that most Americans proudly admit they haven't the foggiest idea of who Al Gore, George W. Bush, Bill Bradley, and John McCain really are.

A bad case of New Hampshire envy has led a number of states to move their primary votes closer to the Granite State's first primary on the largely accurate assumption that early tallies carry more weight than late ones.

And this rush to be first - or closer to first - has created a logjam of early primaries.

California's primary, once in June, is now in early March. Michigan's GOP primary, once in March, is in February. For all we know, South Carolina is probably planning to have its primary for 2004 this August.

By mid-March, three-quarters of the delegates that will nominate at this summer's conventions will have been selected.

The question of course is, What does all this mean to the race? It's hard to say for certain, but there is probably one safe bet: Things are going to be different.

So different, in fact, that it has left those of us in the media more uncomfortable than George W. taking a pop quiz.

Unsure of how to cover a race differently than any we've ever seen, we have become focused, nearly to the point of obsession, on that most tangible of gauges: money.

It's gotten to the point where campaign discussions sound like Wall Street Week. Investors are bullish on Bush, but bearish on Gore. And those Bradley and McCain IPOs are very interesting.

But all of this misses the point. The 2000 campaign, up to now, has been brought to us not by Merrill Lynch but David Copperfield. It is illusion. And after New Hampshire, and Iowa the week before, we may find that nothing is what it seems.

Contrary to popular belief - and bank statements - it is George W. who may be in the most danger as New Hampshire approaches.

New Hampshire, where McCain's outsider campaign is playing well, has added impact this year and it may lessen the importance of the great George W. trust fund.

After New Hampshire, CNN and MSNBC will take over, playing up the big story out of the primary - whatever and whoever it is - and pushing that candidate through to the next vote in South Carolina. If that momentum can be sustained for a week or two, look out.

George W. has taken a chance so far that his money and his name will get him through this race. But his inability to articulate a good reason to elect him has left his swath of supporters wide, but very shallow. His followers want to elect him because he's electable, but if early indications show that thinking is flawed he could fall far and fast, ending up in a tight race.

Meanwhile, for all the talk of Gore's fund-raising problems, the vice president may actually be in better shape than the others.

Regardless of what happens in New Hampshire, polls show his support runs deeper, and when the primary calendar shifts below the Mason-Dixon Line, his southern base should help him. Plus, he has two huge trump cards in his hand - the economy and the support of labor.

Ironically, after all the talk about how early money ended this race before it began, it may turn out that cash is less important than ever in the 2000 race.

In an age with 24-hour news coverage, the coming debates and the "free media" that follow them may create something more powerful and (I may regret this) better than commercials. It is true that the media's focus can be arbitrary, silly, and even vindictive.

But all things considered, a campaign of talking heads probably beats one of morphing candidates, grainy images, and half-true allegations.

All of which is to say, if you're just tuning in now, you haven't missed a whole lot. But study up quick. In 10 weeks it will be over. And you are going to have to live with the results for the rest of the year.

*Dante Chinni writes political commentary from Washington.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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