Posted on November 08, 1999 in Washington Watch

With 10 weeks remaining before the first presidential primary elections of 2000, the Republican and Democratic contests have become quite interesting.

National polls still show Texas Governor George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore far and away the frontrunners to win their respective parties’ nominations for the November presidential elections. But a closer look at polling, in the states where the earliest contest will occur, reveals a much tighter contest in both parties.

For example, most national polls are showing Bush well ahead of his closest challenger Arizona Senator, John McCain. Nationally, Bush remains between 65-70 percent, while McCain barely enters double digits, at 10 to 12 percent.

However, in New Hampshire, which will hold the nation’s first primary on February 1, Bush’s lead over McCain is only 38 to 30, and in Arizona, which holds the next full primary on February 22, McCain is actually ahead 39 to 31. In Iowa, which holds its contest on January 24, polls show Bush leading another Republican contender, Steve Forbes, 31 percent to 22 percent.

The same is true on the Democratic side. National polls still give the Vice President a comfortable lead, with Gore receiving about 50 percent and his only Democratic challenger, former Senator Bill Bradley, receiving from 27 to 32 percent.

However, the early Democratic primary states reveal a different picture. In New Hampshire, for example, Bradley is actually leading by about 4 percent–44 to 40 percent. Gore barely beats Bradley in New York. While in Iowa, the race is virtually even with Gore at 43 and Bradley at 40.

What all this means is that in the early states where voters are paying close attention to the candidates and the election, and where the candidates have been working hare to win support–the contests are much closer then on the national level, where polls are still largely based on name recognition (with Bush and Gore being more recognizable names than the rest of field of candidates). One recent study, for example, showed that Bush is still primarily known by voters as the son of the former President–this despite the fact that he has been campaigning for almost a half year. One former New Hampshire state official said, “He may be good, but nobody in New Hampshire can pick him out of a lineup. He’s totally unknown. This tremendous support comes from name recognition and nothing lese.”

Nationwide most Americans are not following the elections and, therefore, have not formed any real judgments about the candidates–that is why looking to the match-up in the early states provides a useful indicator as to the direction in which the 2000 elections is heading.

This is the genius of the U.S. presidential primary process–it forces candidates to directly engage voters in a few key states. In the early states, especially Iowa and New Hampshire, it is not money and advertising that wins voter support. Candidates must spend time visiting voters in their homes, places of worship, schools, restaurants and town halls. In these states, the campaign for President becomes more like an election for small town mayor. In some small New Hampshire communities, for example, during the months before the presidential primary, most residents will meet, speak to or shake hands with most of the presidential candidates. This is not repeated in the states that hold their contest later in the year.

And because these first early contests can provide a big boost for a campaign, the candidates must take them quite seriously. As a result, most of the candidates have been spending much of their resources and time in Iowa and New Hampshire and other early states.

Last week’s New Hampshire debates provided lessons to both Gore and Bush on the importance of the early contests.

Gore has been closely watching the polls. Sensing that his campaign was in trouble, he recently attempted to jumpstart his effort by moving his campaign office from Washington to Nashville, altering his campaign style, developing a more aggressive posture, and seeking to directly engage Bradley in debates in New Hampshire.

Last week’s debate, however, gave both New Hampshire voters and those, nationally who watched, an opportunity to compare the two Democratic candidates. The results were mixed for Gore. The candidates appeared as equals removing any advantage the Vice President may have had.

In comparing the two, while Gore certainly appeared more assertive and aggressive, thus pleasing his supporters, Bradley’s calm and self-assured style won him praise, as well. The upshot of all this is that it now appears that the Democratic race nationally will soon even out into a contest as close as the current New Hampshire numbers. As voters nationally come to see the two men in the Democratic race as New Hampshire voters have had the opportunity to do –the election will tighten.

On the Republican side, it appears that a Bush miscalculation, has begun to cost the national frontrunner support.

For months it seemed that Bush was the only Republican candidate. With $60 to $70 million raised (6 to 7 times more than his nearest rival) and with all of the major Republican endorsements locked up–the Bush campaign acted as if he has already won the nomination.

Careful not to make mistakes, or to appear equal with his competitors, Bush has avoided candidate forums and has not engaged in direct voter contests in the early states. Instead, the Bush effort has focused on raising money, building an organization and preparing for a national issues campaign. There are signs, however, that an early state backlash is developing.

As the Republican field of candidates has become smaller and those who remain, have become better know, the Bush lead has shrunk in the early states. Bush’s absence from last week’s New Hampshire Republican debate, was both noticed and criticized. A report on the debate noted that the other five candidates, who appeared, agreed on two things–changing the U.S. tax code and their criticism of Bush for not attending.

A number of New Hampshire polls now show Bush under 40 percent, with McCain climbing to within eight percent of a tie. In fact, McCain’s strategy from the outset has been to focus on the early states. Since it is widely believed that Forbes, who has built an impressive Iowa campaign, can run a strong Iowa race against Bush, McCain will most probably let Forbes take on the Texas governor in that state. McCain believes that if he can win the next three: New Hampshire, South Carolina and Arizona–then he can catapult ahead for Bush nationally and win the nomination.

It is still 10 weeks before the voting begins. It remains to be seen whether or not Bradley overcame Gore’s strong Democratic institutional support, or whether or not McCain can overcome Bush’s money, name recognition, and endorsements–but the primary process is such that it provides at least an opportunity for any reasonably funded, well qualified challenger to even the playing field. This is what the candidates are counting on.

The U.S. presidential primary process is a complicated but remarkable exercise in democracy. The candidates will spend $100s of millions and produce hours of 30 second TV ads–but in the end, it is the individual voters in a few early states who will determine the shape of the race. That is why the eyes of the nation and the candidates are now on Iowa, New Hampshire and the other early states.

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