Forget about the Clinton presidency for a moment.
Somewhere out there, in that parallel universe called Politics Future, lurks the next president of the United States, and he or she is happy to talk about life after Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. It's happening on "Larry King Live" and at conservative political conventions and in the living rooms of wealthy donors across the nation.
As predictably as the change of seasons, the 2000 presidential race is now fully in gear. Not that the race for the presidency ever stops; some of the also-rans from 1996 - ex-Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander and publisher Steve Forbes, to name two - haven't broken stride since they dropped out of the GOP nomination race last time around.
But with the turn of the new year, potential candidates may now legally begin to raise "matchable" money - that is, money that they can double through the presidential matching-fund system. Presidential "exploratory committees," entities that allow these potential candidates to create the shell of a campaign, hire staff, and explore what money might be out there, are sprouting up all over.
This earnest phase of the process now begins so early that some candidates have already quit - namely, Sen. John Ashcroft (R) of Missouri and Sen. Paul Wellstone (D) of Minnesota. Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) of Nebraska, briefly a candidate in 1992, has quit the 2000 race before he entered it.
All these dropouts faced a simple fact: More than ever, most serious contenders need to raise lots of money, sooner than ever, even to get in the game. A flush bank account means the ability to hire top staffers and set up credible campaign operations, which in turn, leads to press attention. By this fall, endorsements from governors and other key party players will start to roll in, opening the doors to new levels of political organization.
The process is "heavily front-loaded," says Stephen Wayne, a government professor at Georgetown University who's writing a 2000 version of his book "The Road to the White House 1996."
The biggest change in the process from 1996 is the condensed timetable for state primaries. Many states have moved up the dates of their primaries to enhance their roles in the process. So most primaries will be over by March 2000.
Carter method no more
This means the Jimmy Carter model for running for president is now almost impossible - that is, a dark-horse candidate quietly walking the states of Iowa and New Hampshire, getting to know people, doing surprisingly well in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, then building on those successes to win other primaries and, ultimately, the nomination.
Now, unless your last name is Bush or Dole, it's practically too late to jump in.
"From the point of view of money and ads, I think we're going to see a rerun of 1996, only worse," says Professor Wayne. "It's going to be more expensive, more mass-media oriented, because of the front-loading of the process. So there's going to be more up-front spending."
For a declared "exploratory" candidate like Rep. John Kasich (R) of Ohio, chairman of the House Budget Committee, that makes a run for the White House appear all the more daunting. In an earlier era, the Carter model might have held out some hope for him. And one adviser, Ed Gillespie, won't rule out that Mr. Kasich could potentially break out of the pack with strong showings in early contests.
"If you come out of Iowa or New Hampshire with momentum, you could rocket through those compressed primaries," says Mr. Gillespie. But, he adds, "turning around the money to capture the momentum could be a problem for us or for a candidate who does not already have deep pockets and nationwide name ID."
Ironically, the Republican leading the nomination pack - Texas Gov. George W. Bush - hasn't made any formal move yet to join that pack. But, observers say, he can afford to wait, because he has the famous name and the ability to tap into the money when (and if) he makes his move.
Former American Red Cross president Elizabeth Dole, too, has the name recognition to wait to launch a formal campaign, if she decides to, but can't wait too long, say political analysts. Though a proven fund-raiser for causes, she's never run for office or raised money for herself (but was effective on the stump campaigning for her husband in 1996).
The latest entrant into the Republican fray, former Vice President Dan Quayle, represents an almost Clintonesque version of a political comeback, said political analyst Charles Cook. From the moment then-Vice President Bush named him as his running mate in 1988, Mr. Quayle has fought the image as a lightweight.
By courting the religious conservative community, Quayle has developed a core constituency. The question is whether he can raise the $20 million observers say is needed by next Jan. 1 to run a truly credible campaign.
On the Democratic side, Vice President Al Gore still faces little competition for the nomination. Former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey has formed an exploratory committee, but it's difficult to beat a sitting vice president.
Professor Wayne of Georgetown sees Mr. Gore running a repeat strategy of Clinton's campaign in 1996: Raise the maximum amount of money as quickly as possible, then hold it to see if anybody says anything bad about him. Then, he says, Gore can wait until the Republicans "knock each other out," and spend his money on positive generic ads.