From Super Tuesday rubble rises 'honor'

Well, at least it was a fun ride, but in the end that's all it was - a ride.

As we look around in early March, in the rubble of Super Tuesday, we find ourselves back where we were in early February. Al Gore and George W. Bush, once the presumptive nominees are now, for all intents and purposes, certainties.

In the coming days, you'll read a lot about how W. got his groove back, or how Mr. Gore triumphed over Clinton fatigue. Do yourself a favor, ignore this claptrap.

Mr. Bush closed out his primary run where he began it, able to capture large amounts of the GOP vote while losing, also by a significant margin, among independents.

The only thing that changed was the voters that turned out. When independents and Democrats had other primaries to vote in besides GOP contests - as was the case in most of Tuesday's primaries - John McCain's upset hopes evaporated.

As for Gore, once he reined in his free-spending campaign last year and got his house in order, his triumph was all but certain.

Why would Democrats vote against a Democratic vice president who's seen as partially responsible for the nation's extended winning streak?

They wouldn't. They didn't.

Now Bill Bradley and Mr. McCain, both decent men with some good ideas, will ride off into the sunset, chased only by an army of second-guessers.

But truth is, neither man really had a chance. Both built their candidacies on a kind of reverse primary strategy. They wanted to attract independents and new blood to their campaigns. But nominations are won by turning to the base, not outsiders. Their strategies were better suited for November.

The Reform Party nomination hangs in the distance, and McCain's name is being tossed around as a possibility, but that would be a fool's gambit.

Unless something very dramatic happens, the Reform Party is poised to provide little more than comic relief in the coming months.

All of which leaves us with one compelling question: Now what?

A pushed-up primary schedule means that the American electorate faces the prospect of a seven-month general-election campaign.

Seven months of W. malapropisms while he "unites, not divides" us.

Seven months of Gore stiffly swinging his fists, promising to "fight for you."

Cry the beloved country.

Of course, it doesn't have to be that way.

And following their victories on Tuesday, both Gore and Bush sounded substantive.

Bush said he was going to make this election about issues - namely education, the military, and tax cuts - while he promised he would stand by his core convictions, whatever those are exactly.

Gore pushed campaign-finance reform - saying he'd learned from his Buddhist temple fiasco - and proposed that he and Bush debate two times a week and drop the short, often misleading ads that are campaign staples.

Beneath all the rhetoric are a couple of big points that seem to point to a less-than-substantive seven months ahead.

First, Bush's issues are inherently weak.

Congress proposed tax cuts last fall, and the public said no thanks. Education, though the federal government could make some changes to the system, is primarily a state and local issue. And you can bet both Gore and Bush will talk a lot about improving the military - this is an election after all.

Second, Gore's generous offer to debate is more ploy than substance. Though it sounds good - Lincoln-Douglas updated for the 21st century - it's really little more than the spider offering the fly the opportunity to come over and play. Debating is one of Gore's biggest strengths. He knows it, and Bush knows it - which means it will happen immediately after pigs take to the air. Gore made the same offer to Bradley, who wisely demurred.

So where does that leave us? So far this campaign has offered more interest than most here in Washington ever expected. But a hint at what's ahead may have come near the end of Bush's speech on Tuesday:

"I will bring honor to this process and honor to the office I seek."

Honor is a nice way to bring up Monica and Buddhist temples and Vince Foster, et al. It is, in other words, a way to talk about what's dishonorable, which we can only assume we'll soon be hearing a lot about.

Political translation: "Gentlemen, grab your mud buckets."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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