The first presidential election of the new century promises to be one of the closest - and most hard fought - in years.
The presumed nominees, Vice President Al Gore for the Democrats and Texas Gov. George W. Bush for the Republicans, both sit near the middle of the ideological spectrum that is crucial to winning general elections.
Both can raise vast sums of money. Both have the solid backing of their parties' establishments and core constituencies. In fact, the race may come down to a few swing states in the Midwest.
"I've never seen an election where so many votes are already in the bag - and where there's such a narrow battleground on which to get the victory," says Michael Birkner, a historian at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.
Coming out of what essentially turned out to be the primary finale on Tuesday, Mr. Gore holds some initial advantages over Mr. Bush.
True, the Texas governor emerges from the primaries with a reputation as a fighter. He has sharpened his message. But he will have to unite the moderate and conservative elements of his party - and rebuild his seriously depleted campaign war chest. Perhaps more important, he needs to capture some of the independents and Democrats who supported his chief rival, Sen. John McCain, if he is to win in November.
The vice president, for his part, overcame a trenchant early challenge from former Sen. Bill Bradley to complete what seems a convincing win. Most analysts believe his campaign style sharpened as he did.
A big question for Gore: Can he cast off the yoke of the Clinton scandals?
Still, Gore also enjoys wide support among Democrats - from liberal lunch-pail unionists to senior citizens concerned about Social Security checks.
"He's very good at playing the middle," says Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli. "After all, he learned from the master," President Clinton.
Gore has become more articulate, more focused, and warmer because of his contest with Mr. Bradley, most observers agree.
Indeed, some say Gore has the upper hand on popular issues. He would protect abortion rights, impose stricter gun controls, bolster Social Security, and take steps toward universal healthcare. He also boasts of his experience stewarding the golden economy and protecting the environment. And he has recently talked more about campaign-finance overhaul - an apparent bid to woo the McCain independents.
A Bush retrospective
Bush, meanwhile, has proven adept at the kind of political jujitsu that's key to success: When Senator McCain chalked up votes as the candidate of reform, Bush retooled himself as the "reformer with results" - a slogan that went over well with voters.
Bush's "consistent, unruffled temperament has shown he's the more effective campaigner," says Dr. Birkner. His "marathoner" attitude contrasts with Senator McCain's shoot-from-the-hip approach and tendency to "yell a little louder when things get tough."
Although Bush now has to unite his fractured party - and overcome his image as a conservative "Pat Robertson Republican" - some observers say he's a stronger candidate than many Democrats suspect.
Bush is focusing primarily on his voucher-based education-reform plan. He may be able to beat Gore on the issue - including among largely pro-voucher inner-city residents - because Gore, who is backed by antivoucher teachers unions, rejects this method of reform. In trying to appeal to "McCainiacs" and other independents, Bush also talks about his "outsider" status and "reformer" approach.
The two men will also likely bring their nearly unparalleled tenacity into the one-on-one contest - an approach that in the past has led to dirty campaign tactics.
"Gore and Bush both take shamelessness to a brand new level," says pollster Del Ali. Given their sometimes-vicious ads so far - and the success these ads achieved - he expects the strategy to continue.
"There's too much at stake for everybody to make nice," agrees Earl Black, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston, who notes that House of Representatives and perhaps even the Senate are up for grabs this election cycle.
Both geographically and among swing voters, the presidential contest is expected to be unusually tight.
The assumptions about the political landscape go like this: Gore will be especially strong in New England, New York, California, and the rest of the West Coast. Bush, meanwhile, is likely to be dominant in the Rocky Mountain West, Florida, Texas, and the rest of the South. That leaves a swath of states from New Jersey to Illinois as the major battleground, including electoral powerhouses Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Who can broaden his base the most?
Further narrowing the field of swing voters, there's the fact that Bush and Gore have so successfully bolstered their traditional bases in the primaries.
Bush has appealed to conservatives to counter McCain's support among independents and crossover voters. Gore has wooed union and blue-collar voters to keep Bradley from making inroads among these traditional Democratic stalwarts.
But that leaves an important segment of the electorate largely unattached - independents, including McCain's many supporters.
And of course, the US economy can always reshape the race - almost instantaneously. If gasoline prices remain high and "we get a real bout of inflation and stock-market drops," says Mr. Ciruli, "the Clinton-Gore economic record is going to be in real trouble."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society