Next: the nearly national primary

Over next several weeks, presidential primaries in all regions will give voters chance to help pick nominees.

Presidential candidates are bouncing around the United States like pinballs as campaign 2000 accelerates into a period of maximum national intensity.

Last week Al Gore raced from New York to Ohio to California to Washington State - in two days. This week Bill Bradley campaigned in South Carolina, Ohio, and Missouri - in one.

In days to come John McCain and George W. Bush will shuttle from South Carolina, which votes on Feb. 19, to Arizona and Michigan, whose primaries are Feb. 22.

Why the frenetic flying? Unintentionally, a crush of accelerated votes has turned late February and early March into a giant national primary.

Americans of all regions will get to help choose presidential nominees. Candidates won't be able to flip one way to satisfy one state's concerns, then flop back to mollify another's.

But things will happen so fast that there is no room for error. One slip, and you're back home talking to Lamar Alexander on the phone, trading stories about what might have been.

"It's a rush to judgment, and it compresses the drama," says Emmett Buell, a political scientist at Dennison University in Granville, Ohio, of the coming election schedule.

Drama might not be the only thing compressed by the schedule. Candidates themselves might feel as if they have been crushed in a giant vise after they have spent the next three weeks living out of their campaign planes.

On March 7 alone - Titanic Tuesday - about one-third of the delegates needed for nomination will be chosen. It's easier to list the big states that won't have voted by the end of March, rather than those that will have. April has only a handful of primary prizes - Pennsylvania, Kansas, and Wisconsin. After that, the biggest vote left is New Jersey, on June 6.

The parties did not plan for this to happen. Instead, it is a byproduct of this political cycle's rush by states to move their primaries forward, so as to siphon off some of the influence and attention that has long flowed to Iowa and New Hampshire.

The result: a situation in which many states have a say, in proportion to their size and the number of delegates they offer.

Sound like the general election? It should. The US is now facing a sort of national primary, say experts, in which nationwide reaction to campaign events is as important as local reaction.

"The media have reacted to that and are covering [politics] much earlier," says Frank Bryan, a political scientist at the University of Vermont in Burlington.

Thus Governor Bush's speech at Bob Jones University in South Carolina after his New Hampshire primary loss could help him in South Carolina itself. The Palmetto State is conservative, and Bush is trying to outflank Senator McCain on the right.

But by appearing at an institution that famously bans interracial dating, Bush may not have helped himself in, say, California, March 7's biggest prize.

The national primary may energize voters and bring them into the process like never before.

That can be seen in recent big swings in national polls. Bush still leads McCain nationwide by a wide margin - but McCain is coming up fast, gaining as much as 11 points in some surveys. That big of a bounce means a lot of people have suddenly started paying attention to politics, say pollsters.

But the virtual national primary also means that candidates are stuck with issues.

First, look back to 1976. GOP candidate Ronald Reagan got thumped by Gerald Ford in New Hampshire. Then Mr. Reagan hit upon keeping the Panama Canal as an issue. It helped keep him competitive until the convention.

Fast forward to 2000. Bush discovers that the large tax plan he's produced does not draw many votes, even in tax-shy New Hampshire. "Bush then doesn't have much time to change that," says Mr. Buell.

Last time, Bob Dole had time to recover from early primary stumbles. This time, "once the thing starts, it moves with the speed of light," says Steven Schier, chairman of the political science department at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

Before New Hampshire, the conventional wisdom was that the compressed schedule favored those who won the "money primary" of fund-raising - Mr. Gore and Bush.

McCain's rise is challenging that belief. "We'll get an interesting test in the next month as to what happens to someone who was not able to raise near the money of Bush and was able to jump-start his campaign," says Earl Black, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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