Bush's new challenge: 'front-runner fatigue'

History shows that being in front so early can cause the public to turn against a presidential candidate.

Presidential candidates have always had a lot to worry about: Will enough money come in to keep the campaign afloat? Will the press discover something embarrassing or even politically fatal? Will anybody actually vote for me?

Now, for the top candidates, there's a new concern: the potential for "front-runner fatigue."

Campaign 2000 has started earlier than any presidential race in history, and the proliferation of 24-hour news operations such as MSNBC, Fox, and the now-venerable CNN means that leading candidates run the risk of overexposure. The pace of a campaign, always important, has never been more crucial.

Some of the allure of Texas Gov. George W. Bush - who maintains a steady double-digit lead in polls over likely Democratic nominee, Vice President Gore - is that he's new on the national political scene. And even as the press and rival candidates clamor for Bush to reveal ever-more detail about his policies and plans for the country, his campaign knows he must exercise restraint.

"We've reached the point where a good bit of Al Gore's problem is that he's been around too long," says pollster John Zogby. "I wonder at what point folks will say, 'George W.? Oh yeah, he was last year's front-runner. Who do you have for me this year?' That's a whole new element this year."

Despite Bush's solid poll numbers, there's anecdotal evidence that some voters are already getting tired of Mr. Inevitable. One Bush contributor in Massachusetts says he gave to Bush because a friend asked him to, but now he's interested in another candidate, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, and now plans to send him a check.

Growing scrutiny of Bush

Bush has caught some heat for taking his annual vacation in Maine just a couple of weeks before the Iowa GOP straw poll Aug. 14, which will be an important event for the Republican field. Bush's campaign has countered these complaints with a plug for family values - that it's a vacation he takes every year with his family and that, when he decided to run for president, he promised his family they'd still go.

Still, Bush hasn't ensconced himself completely in Kennebunkport these past two weeks, lest he fall completely off the voters' radar screen. He took a day off to campaign in New Hampshire and then another two days in Iowa.

Though Bush is the GOP front-runner, his campaign knows he can't appear to take anything for granted - and that this early support isn't locked in granite. There's a lot of time left for voters to change their minds before the primaries next winter and the general election in November 2000.

For Gore, the problem is the mirror opposite. He appears stuck in a permanent valley. He has consistently trailed Bush in polls from the beginning of the campaign - and even well before, when pollsters were surmising they'd be the nominees.

But Democrats maintain this isn't a bad place to be: He has nowhere to go but up. Expectations are low. And history has shown that being in front at this point in a campaign doesn't guarantee a win - or even the nomination. "You look at a bunch of presidential campaigns now, and the people who are out front now usually lose," says Pat Ewing, an official at the Democratic National Committee. "Gary Hart was in front, (ex-President) Bush was in front."

The analogy the Democrats cling to most fiercely is that of former President Bush, father of today's GOP front-runner. When he ran for reelection in 1992, he led Bill Clinton in the polls all the way up to the Democratic convention. After that, Clinton surged ahead and never looked back.

Of course, no campaign likes to look at daily polls that consistently show a deficit of 15 to 20 points. Arguing that being this far behind is actually good has the whiff of spin to it. At a certain point, the numbers do have to shift. But what is that point?

Analysts say the polls really start to count after both major parties have held their conventions - that is, around Labor Day of election year, or more than a year away.

The first stretch

In the meantime, both parties' front-runners have to make it through the primaries. And even though Bush and Gore look safe to win their nominations, nothing is guaranteed.

For a while, Gore's only rival for the Democratic nomination, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, appeared to be making serious inroads into Gore's support. He's raised a decent pile of money, posted solid poll numbers (in the mid-30s to Gore's 50-plus percent), and attracted considerable - and positive - media attention.

But in his own way, Senator Bradley may also have peaked too soon. His expectations have gone from the question: "Can he do anything at all?" to "Can he actually beat Al Gore?" The answer is likely "no."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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