OK, it's time to start paying attention. After four months of false starts, straw polls, and pseudo debates, the contest for the presidency in 2000 is actually beginning to take shape. And the ride may end up more interesting than we thought.
All the indications of a campaign shifting gears are there. The election is only a year off. New Hampshire's Bob Smith has packed it in and returned to the GOP. And Al Gore has abandoned his forced awkwardly wooden stage manner for a forced awkwardly empathetic stage manner.
But the most serious sign that this campaign has entered a new phase came from Austin this week when George W. Bush decided to abandon his campaign from the Texas governor's mansion - the cactus garden strategy - and join the fray in New Hampshire.
Up to now, Mr. Bush has been more than happy to avoid the campaign trail and let the dwarves of the GOP race beat each other up. The hope was they'd fragment the anti-Bush vote and make sure George W. had no real competition until it was too late. And things had been going so smoothly, in fact, the candidate had sworn off debate appearances for 1999.
But all that changed last week with the first televised GOP debate when it became all too clear that the GOP was in all seriousness only a two-man race - maybe 2-1/2 if Steve Forbes's cash counts. John McCain did not hit a home run. He didn't need to - not flanked by the gang that turned out. When the hour was up, his quiet, deliberative approach made him the only man left standing.
Sen. Orrin Hatch made it clear that he knew how to get things done, but gave no clear idea of what exactly he wanted to do. Gary Bauer did his best I'm-not-a-scary-right-wing-zealot impression, and came off phony. Mr. Forbes tried hard to be engaging, but even his best scores somewhere below a PBS pledge drive. And Alan Keyes electrified the crowd with his "I hate the UN" sermon. Can I get an amen?!
When the final statements were over, that noise you heard emanating from Austin was the scrambling of jets at W. Headquarters. Even before the debate, the polls, which once showed a gargantuan lead for George W. in New Hampshire, had shrunk to extra large - from 35 points in August to 12 now. But the debate clearly pulled some candidates off the "possible option" side of the ledger and placed them in the "maybe if everyone else is abducted by aliens" camp.
And all of this fits nicely with the risky strategy McCain's campaign has been running. They are putting all their eggs into the Granite State with the hope of pulling a surprise in the New Hampshire primary and building momentum.
In truth, this plan is probably still a long shot, especially considering George W.'s checkbook. But the events of the last week have changed things in one very real way. Bush now actually has to engage in a primary campaign.
Up to now George W. has had the luxury of largely ignoring hard-line conservative voters because his lead has been so comfortable. He has basically been running a general election campaign - playing to moderates from both parties and avoiding controversial issues. That is beginning to change.
On Tuesday, George W. ventured up to New Hampshire to make his third major policy speech on education. And unlike the others that had focused on issues like vouchers and teacher accountability - ideas some Democrats even endorse - this one tepidly touched on morals and religion in schools. Nothing heavy, mind you, but the slightest step rightward.
These are the steps that cause problems for candidates. They are the steps that make candidates sometimes say things they don't mean - things that are used against them, sometimes out of context, after they have secured the nomination - good old American politics.
The road is going to get tricky now for George W., but it's better for the public. We may start to get to the specifics behind the platitudes and get a better idea of who he is. Last week the man from Austin, the one who said he wouldn't debate in 1999, gratefully accepted the invitation to appear with his fellow candidates for a discussion of issues on Dec. 2.
Welcome to a campaign.
*Dante Chinni writes political commentary from Washington.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society