So far, the race for each party's presidential nomination feels more like a coronation than an election. Though not a single primary vote has been cast, there's a certain air of inevitability to these contests - an understanding that front-runners with this much party support seldom fail to get the nod.
But with dark horse Bill Bradley now in a statistical tie with Al Gore in New Hampshire polls, and for the first time moving up on him in national surveys, it's now conceivable the vice president could be toppled from his throne of presumed nominee.
Even George W. Bush, miles in front of competitors such as Sen. John McCain and Elizabeth Dole, could lose his crown, whisper some political experts.
Conventional wisdom still favors a Bush-Gore race in 2000. While Americans may wish they had more influence over the nomination process, there's little sign that they believe these early coronations will run roughshod over the whole idea of democracy.
Political analysts and the secondary tier of candidates, meanwhile, are trying to assess how securely the crowns are balanced on the heads of the anointed. Many see Mr. Gore's, in particular, as teetering.
"Bradley's showing is better than I expected not only six months ago, but six weeks ago," says independent political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "Bush's inevitability still has not been shattered in my mind, but Gore's is starting to crumble."
Outlook for Democrats
For the Democrats, a serious Gore-Bradley fight would not bode well for winning the White House. Gore, having originally expected to wage only one campaign battle, will have to deploy his resources on two fronts. Nor would history be on Democrats' side.
"In the last 100 years, 100 percent of the time, when the Democrats have held power and had a big party fight, they've lost power," says Allan Lichtman, known for his "13 keys" to the White House, which forecast presidential elections.
While national surveys still show Gore with a commanding lead over his Democratic rival, they also show the gap narrowing. Last week, the Pew Research Center found that in July, 65 percent of all Democrats and Democrat-leaning Independents favored the vice president. This month, that dropped to 58 percent. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll mirrors that trend.
Interestingly, The Wall Street Journal data show Mr. Bradley, rather than Gore, to be the more formidable challenger to Governor Bush - though that poll still shows Bush winning in the general election.
Call him a contrarian, says Mike Murphy, a GOP political consultant, but he sees Bradley overtaking Gore as a real possibility. He also says it's conceivable that Senator McCain can beat Bush - though that's a big stretch, he concedes.
Mr. Murphy, who is not yet committed to any candidate but is being wooed by the McCain camp, says both dark horses are seen as "people of principle who could clean up a broken Washington." Moreover, he adds, voters like the fact that Bradley and McCain have had lives of achievement outside of Washington - Bradley in his pro-basketball career, and McCain as a Vietnam war hero.
"I don't believe either Gore or Bush are inevitable," says Steve Merksamer, a California lawyer and political strategist who advised Republican Bob Dole in his 1996 general-election fight against Bill Clinton. Republicans Steve Forbes and McCain each has the financial resources and ideas to unseat Bush, says Mr. Merksamer, national co-chairman for the Forbes campaign.
Still, few people other than consultants for the GOP underdogs believe Bush will fail to become the party's nominee.
"Anointed candidates usually win the nomination," reminds Mr. Lichtman.
Distinct from a front-runner, who leads the pack in polls or in an election, an "anointed candidate" - as Lichtman defines the term - is someone who far outshines the opponent in fund-raising, endorsements, and polling during the pre-primary season.
Bush fits this definition, according to Lichtman. But Gore falls short because he has not raised significantly more money than Bradley has and because "he's not lapping up endorsements as you might think." Indeed, America's labor unions are sharply divided over whom to endorse, and Democratic members of Congress have hardly fallen in behind the vice president the way their Republican counterparts have for Bush.
The rule that coronation leads to nomination has its exceptions, of course. Perhaps the most breathtaking one was the ousting of Democrat Edmund Muskie in 1972. A nationally known senator from Maine who was once a presidential running mate, Mr. Muskie was the presumed nominee to go up against the incumbent president, Richard Nixon.
But George McGovern sneaked up from behind to win the New Hampshire primary, out-doving Muskie on the Vietnam War. Muskie's image also suffered after he teared up while defending his wife from a vicious attack in a newspaper.
Burning issues - so far lacking in this campaign - as well as a candidate's own shortcomings can cost a contender his anointed status, says Lichtman. Indeed, GOP consultants caution that Bush needs to take care not to appear arrogant, though he appears to have survived the storm over his alleged drug use in years past.
While the anointed ones may bask in their status, the nominating process is not without its critics. They point out that party activists and donors can easily anoint a loser, as turned out to be the case in the Republicans' selection in 1996 of Mr. Dole.
"In the Republican Party, we tend to be hierarchical and defer to age, and it was viewed as Bob Dole's time - obviously to disastrous consequences," says Merksamer. While George W.'s "time" has not come, "there's a great deal of longing for his father."
He also worries that without a real contest in the primaries, a nominee can be unprepared for the attack that is sure to come during the general election - a phenomenon Merksamer has witnessed in California elections.
Americans on 'the process'
But if early coronations run counter to the concept of democratic elections, Americans don't appear to be too concerned. In general, a majority says voters have too little influence on the nomination process, and that the media, donors, and party leaders have too much, according to a Pew Research Center poll.
But these findings reflect overall feelings about the political process and are not a comment on the anointing phenomenon, says Andrew Kohut, director of the center. He doubts voters will even think about the issue until the primaries next year.
In the end, analysts say, voters want some decent choices in the primaries but aren't preoccupied with how candidates get there.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society