Only 729 Days Till Election 2000

Candidates size up their competition - and war chests - as decision time nears for presidential contenders.

The 1998 midterm elections are over. That means it's time for the White House 2000 race to really begin.

Oh ... it already did? Two years ago?

The campaign to win the first presidential election of the next century has been under way in earnest since late 1996, say political pros. It was the earliest such start ever - which is fitting, since the race itself promises to be wilder and more white-knuckled than any in recent history.

The Republicans have no obvious front-runner, although Texas Gov. George W. Bush is trying to act like a coy heir apparent. The Democrats have a front-runner, but Vice President Gore continues to underwhelm party activists. (Note to Al: That mummy costume you wore to your Halloween party. What, exactly, were you trying to say?)

When last we left the other potential candidates, former GOP Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander had vowed to wear his trademark flannel shirts less often. Rep. John Kasich (R) of Ohio was hoping that "angels" would help him raise $20 million for an Oval Office bid. Ex-Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey was comparing running for president to jumping off a 50-story building.

"It's certainly an open race," says political scientist Anthony Corrado of Colby College in Waterville, Maine. "It remains to be seen who will rise to the challenge."

On one level, presidential campaigning is now permanent in America. Potential candidates spend years cultivating supporters in key states.

Mr. Alexander is perhaps the most prominent of the current long-distance runners. He started vying for the White House soon after President Clinton won in 1992, and has yet to stop, or even take much of a pause.

Still, Alexander has changed. The folksiness of 1996, represented by the ever-present black-and-red plaid shirt, has been downplayed. In its place is a "We the Parents" theme that emphasizes better schools and help for frazzled moms and dads.

But political experts date the beginning of a presidential election cycle from the first speeches by candidates in Iowa, whose caucuses are the first event on the voting schedule. That puts the onus for starting the 2000 race on former vice-presidential candidate Jack Kemp, who appeared for a meet-and-speak in Iowa on Dec. 13, 1996.

Such an early start is surely meant to win voters' hearts. But its real point is something else - money.

The amount of cash any one person can give to a candidate has not changed in years. Yet the cost of campaigning has gone up. A viable candidate needs a huge slush fund, because so many state primaries are jammed together at the front of the nomination process.

No candidate wants to face the situation that doomed Alexander's 1996 effort, or Paul Tsongas's 1992 race - an inability to build on a strong early showing due to a shortage of cash.

"Candidates, if they hope to be financially competitive, now have to raise $15 [million] to $22 million before a single vote is cast," says Mr. Corrado, who studies money in politics.

Some candidates are already wondering out loud about where they can find that much money.

GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin has said he is locked out of the race because he can't raise cash. Representative Kasich, a budget panel chairman who loves the Grateful Dead and hopes to capture the hip fiscal conservative vote, says he will run only if he gets $20 million. Said Kasich recently: "The Republican Party is in danger of turning the nominating process into the lifestyles of the rich and famous."

Speaking of which, publisher Steve Forbes is also likely to run again. This time, he is attempting to reinvent himself as not just a tax-cutter, but a true social conservative as well.

This has elicited some complaints from potential GOP candidates who feel they have a truer claim on the important vote of the religious right. Conservative talk-show host Alan Keyes recently called Mr. Forbes a "phony."

Other probable GOP candidates include former Vice President Dan Quayle, Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft, and (maybe) Speaker Newt Gingrich. But Texas's Governor Bush remains the favorite to become the front-runner.

On the Democratic side, Mr. Gore remains the man to beat.

"There doesn't seem to be anybody who can unseat him," says political scientist Michael Genovese of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

That doesn't mean some people won't try. A perception of Gore's lingering political weakness - he recently lost badly to Bush in a CNN/USA Today poll matchup - has damaged his standing in the party somewhat.

Former Senator Bradley says he'll decide late this year whether to challenge Gore. Among other potential heavyweight challengers, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts say they have a similar decision time frame.

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