The race is in the backstretch - and the elbows are flying.
As campaign 2000 enters a key eight-week period that will likely determine each party's presidential nominee, the leading contenders have suddenly intensified efforts to differentiate themselves from their intramural rivals.
It's a particularly crucial time for insurgents Bill Bradley and Sen. John McCain, say political experts. Both have done well portraying themselves as rebels. Now they have to convince voters they have the breadth of knowledge to actually run the country - not just offer trenchant criticism of the establishment from the bleachers.
Otherwise, the establishment candidates Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore could quickly restore their aura of inevitability.
"You have to bet on organization and money ... which tells you to bet on Bush and Gore," says David W. Brady, a Stanford political scientist. "The burden falls on McCain and Bradley [to overcome that edge.]"
The new phase of the presidential campaign can be seen in this week's stepped-up schedule of debates. Both Democrats and Republicans will tangle twice this week as they sprint toward Iowa's Jan. 24 caucuses and New Hampshire's Feb. 1 primary.
It can also be seen in the sharpness of recent candidate jabs.
On Tuesday, Governor Bush took aim at Senator McCain over tax policy - perennially New Hampshire's largest issue.
McCain's tax plan was sketchy and would do little for the middle class, said Bush. But his own plan would save a New Hampshire family of four with an income of $50,000 some $2,000 a year, said the Texas governor.
McCain responded that Bush's $483 billion, five-year tax-cut plan is simply too big.
In Bush's proposal, "60 percent of the tax cuts are for the wealthiest 10 percent of America," said McCain.
This exchange shows the challenges facing both candidates in the weeks ahead, say experts. Bush needs to come out and fight over specifics, many say. While his campaign has produced boxes of detailed policy proposals, he himself has seemed at times uncertain when discussing them in public.
"Bush needs to play a little more to win," says Stanford's Mr. Brady.
McCain, for his part, has mounted a surprisingly strong campaign by combining his appealing personal war-hero story with a pounding message on the need for campaign-finance overhaul.
But while campaign finance plays well with independent voters, it traditionally has held little appeal with core GOP adherents.
In New Hampshire, any voter can cast ballots in either primary - meaning independents and Democrats could cross over and hand McCain a big victory. But his chances in GOP-voter-only primaries are less bright.
McCain's supporters say early momentum from a New Hampshire win could carry him to a crucial victory in South Carolina's Republican primary on Feb. 19. Others are not so sure.
"The support he's attracting in New Hampshire explains why he won't be the nominee," insists Steven Schier, chairman of the political science department at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "He's getting the support of independents."
If anything, the intramural combat has been even rougher on the other side of the political spectrum.
To some extent, Mr. Gore has halted Mr. Bradley's momentum in New England by attacking the Bradley health-care plan as too big and too expensive.
This week he broadened that attack to say that Bradley, a former US senator from New Jersey, is concerned with only a few things. Yet sitting in the Oval Office means dealing with many things, often at once, Gore said Monday.
"The presidency ... is not a seminar where you get to entertain a single grand theory," said Gore in an Iowa speech. "The presidency is a long, resolute, day-by-day fight."
Bradley, for his part, hit back by characterizing Gore as a traditional Washington politician with a limited vision.
"I say now is not the time to be timid," he said in Manchester, N.H.
Gore needs to sit on Bradley to prevent any resurgence of momentum, say political strategists. Bradley, meanwhile, needs to get moving again - perhaps by intensifying his messages on health care and education, two issues that play particularly well with many Democratic voters.
Bradley is better positioned than his fellow insurgent, McCain, in some ways. His message appeals to his party's core adherents - and Gore trails Bush in head-to-head polls.
That robs Gore of a powerful argument for an establishment candidate - electability.
"Gore is not as far ahead of Bradley as Bush is of McCain," says Earl Black, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society