Tomorrow's primaries in Virginia and Washington State were supposed to be minor way stations on the road to the biggest electoral destination of the presidential nominating season: the 13 primaries of Super Tuesday on March 7.
Now the Feb. 29 contests loom large, as a signal of where the increasingly unpredictable 2000 campaign is heading.
In Washington, the only Democratic contest tomorrow, Bill Bradley is fighting for his political life, still in search of his first primary victory. As in New Hampshire, he is competing with the more-charismatic John McCain for the large bloc of independent voters and for Democrats who may be tempted to cross over and vote in the volatile GOP race.
On the Republican side, George W. Bush remains the favorite to win the Virginia primary, one of the most conservative Republican states in the country. In Washington State, the latest polls show the contest between Texas Governor Bush and Arizona Senator McCain is too close to call.
A variety of outcomes is possible - with profound implications for each of the top Republican candidates. If Bush wins both races, that provides a major boost to a campaign that is reeling from a surprise 7-point loss in last week's Michigan primary. A double loss would dampen the McCain drive, but not kill it, analysts say.
If McCain wins both primaries tomorrow, that would signal the beginning of the end of Bush's candidacy, some analysts say. And if there's a split decision - Washington to McCain and Virginia to Bush - the suspense over who will ultimately win this GOP battle royal would only heighten.
The question now for McCain is whether he can break through the veneer of still-large support for Bush among registered Republicans - support that is wide but not terribly deep.
"All over the country, support for Bush is relatively shallow," says Scott Keeter, a political analyst at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "People had heard of him, they liked his rsum, they thought he was inevitable. When the inevitability factor was called into question, people began to reassess."
View from Virginia
In Virginia, polls show the gap between Bush and McCain is narrowing to between 8 and 11 points. McCain is picking up steam in Old Dominion - probably not enough to win, but enough to take some of the luster off an expected Bush victory.
McCain has added some last-minute appearances in Virginia and has matched Bush ad for ad on TV "It's clear McCain thinks he may be able to get lucky here," says Bob Holsworth, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
In northern Virginia, where the Republicanism is less conservative than in the central and southern parts of the state, McCain is strong. In the military-dominated region of Norfolk, McCain and Bush are neck and neck.
By all rights, McCain shouldn't have expected he could compete in Virginia. The state has a strong Republican establishment, all of which is backing Bush. Even in South Carolina, which Bush won by 11 points, some major Republicans broke away and backed McCain. Virginia is also a major tobacco-producing state, and McCain's stance against Big Tobacco hurts him there.
The military presence in Virginia is strong, but even there, McCain has some positions against particular military projects that can hurt his political position. Virginia is also the home state of two big Christian conservative leaders, the Rev. Pat Robertson - a major agitator for Bush's cause - and the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Religious conservatives have backed Bush by large margins in the early primaries.
Virginia's political system also works to Bush's benefit. Tomorrow's primary is only the second Virginia has had - and so the state has no tradition of voters coming out and "crossing over" to vote in the other party's primary.
"This is one of Bush's best four or five states," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "If he doesn't win this in a smashing fashion, he will have some explaining to do."
Mr. Sabato defines "less than smashing" as anything less than the 11-point margin by which he won South Carolina two weeks ago. If Bush does win Virginia by, say, only 5 or 6 points, such a result could signal deepening trouble in a campaign that was caught off guard by McCain's insurgency.
On the eve of the primary, many voters in northern Virginia remained undecided - a sign of hope for McCain.
"I'm still weighing the candidates," says Jeanette Sifuentes, a retired schoolteacher in Crystal City, Va. "My heart goes out to McCain and my head might go to Bush."
On the other side of the country, in Washington, voters of all political stripes are making similar calculations as they prepare for the first West Coast primary.
A day before the Washington primary vote, the question seems to be one of demand and supply: Namely, are there enough independents and liberals - of various stripes - to string along the presidential aspirations of both Mr. Bradley and McCain?
In parallel battles to buck their party's regulars and win nomination, both insurgents are campaigning diligently for many of the same voters.
Bradley acknowledges that Washington may be his last chance - although he probably couldn't have picked a better state. "This is a place that is kind of tailor-made for Bradley," says Paul Berendt, chairman of the Democratic State Central Committee of Washington and a supporter of Al Gore. "Bradley is strongest here in Seattle."
Indeed, Seattle is a bastion of literate liberals, both Democrat and Republican. In 1988, 64 percent of Seattleites voted for doomed Democrat Michael Dukakis, a show of wasted ideals that nonetheless made Washington one of only three states to support the hapless Massachusetts governor against George Bush the Elder.
Because of this, Bradley has been able to wax unabashedly liberal as he leaps from stump to stump in the Evergreen State, especially in western Washington. Both in person and in hard-hitting printed mailings, he accuses the vice president of covering up his conservative record in the US House of Representatives.
Appealing to traditional Democrats and liberal independents, Bradley's untempered remarks point out that he has supported abortion rights longer than Mr. Gore, that his plans to strengthen gun-control measures and put resources into education are bolder than Gore's, and that only he supports healthcare for all Americans.
In a state where Democrats love liberals, Bradley can stand tall and say that he plans to use government to improve the lives of regular citizens. Referring to the booming economy, he tells them, "We should be fixing our roof while the sun is shining."
"Early on, there was a lot of enthusiasm for Bradley in this state," says Mr. Berendt. But because nobody expected Washington to be a significant primary, "neither Gore nor Bradley even had a field organizer here until recently."
Because of that oversight, Berendt says, Bradley let slip a lot of support that could naturally have been his.
Another factor that could nullify some of Bradley's six-day war against Gore is the dramatic increase in absentee ballots among Washington voters. In Snohomish, the populous county just north of Seattle, 52,000 absentee ballots have been sent to 108,000 registered voters - and perhaps half of these ballots already have been returned, unaffected by Bradley's last-minute blitz. Though the crush of absentees also affects McCain, his positioning as an anti-establishment Western maverick remains a significant advantage.
The state's Republican Party, which not surprisingly supports Bush, may also lend an unintentional hand to any McCain success.
During Ronald Reagan's presidency, far-right religious conservatives captured control of Washington's Republican Party. Finding no place in the party that not long ago elected Dan Evans, a governor who championed environmentalism alongside of industry, many liberal Republicans have become reluctant Democrats or fierce independents.
Who's the bigger maverick?
The problem, for both Bush and Bradley, is that McCain's message of straight talk and iconoclasm appeals to many independents and even some Democrats, fed up with their party's rhetoric or alienated by the personal failings of President Clinton.
With Bush expected to get most of his votes from the Republican hard-core, and with Gore popular among labor and his party's faithful, Bradley and McCain have begun fighting each other over the state's voting mavericks.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society