Posted on December 13, 1999 in Washington Watch

As we approach the end of 1999, the presidential contests have become far more intriguing affairs then they appeared to be just a few months ago. Back then it was presumed that Republican Texas Governor George W. Bush and Democratic Vice President Al Gore would be the likely candidates representing their respective parties in the November 2000 elections.

Both candidates had amassed most of their parties’ major endorsements. Gore had the support of the Democratic establishment and the power of a strong economy behind him. Bush, too, had the support of his party’s establishment and the largest campaign warchest in political history (by now Bush has raised more than $63 million). Both seemed invincible.

Not so, at year’s end. Bush, who has faired badly in his public appearances, is now in, what appears to be, a free-fall in New Hampshire polling. While most of the other Republican candidates are quite weak, Arizona Senator John McCain, a maverick, has caught the eye of voters and the press.

Two months ago, Bush was leading McCain in New Hampshire by a 43% to 23% margin. One month ago, that margin had dropped to 38% to 30%. Today, McCain is leading Bush in New Hampshire by a 43% to 28% margin. A few months ago, Republican voters, driven by an intense desire to win back the White House, supported the image and aura of a Bush candidacy. For the most part, they hadn’t seen or heard him. They knew of him and they knew the family name. Now, they have had an opportunity to evaluate the candidate and the results are striking. In response to eight questions (Who can you see as President? Who has the knowledge to lead in foreign affairs?, etc.) McCain tops Bush in seven of the eight.

Having seen their candidate perform in the season’s first few debates, some of the Republican establishment are also nervous. McCain is a maverick and the establishment is concerned about his candidacy–but they are expressing private concerns as well about how Bush will be able to stand up against Gore or Bill Bradley in a presidential debate.

The money, the name and the endorsements are, it appears, not enough if the candidate can’t meet the challenges of the campaign.

Some observers still feel that Bush can recoup. It is possible that he may lose New Hampshire, but still win the presidency because his establishment support is so strong. He is still learning, they say, and has enough time to show voters that he knows how to govern. Finally, Bush supporters suggest that McCain’s own weaknesses will soon come out and his sudden rise will be reversed.

For now, McCain is the darling of the press. This week’s Time magazine featured a glowing report on McCain the “war hero” and the “reformer”–images that are playing well with voters who seem to like the maverick candidate.

On the Democratic side too, the invincible frontrunner has experienced a challenge from a maverick. Bill Bradley, the former Senator who quit politics in 1996 saying that the system was “broken,” has come back to run a strong race against Vice President Al Gore. Bradley, who served in the Senate for 18 years, is running against “Washington politics.” Bradley, who has raised as much money as the Vice President, is campaigning for campaign finance reform. And Bradley, who at times, appears to be so low key as to be a non-candidate–has in fact, used this style to define his campaign.

As a result, Gore had to make dramatic shifts in his strategy. He moved his headquarters to Nashville, Tennessee–to escape the Washington culture. He changed his style to a more aggressive form of campaigning–at times Gore has taken on the traditional role of the underdog: challenging Bradley to debates, pointedly attacking his programs, and spending endless hours meeting voters one-on-one to appeal for their support. At times, Gore is walking a fine line, between being Vice President Gore and candidate Al Gore–attempting to make the best of each role.

In the early states, Gore appears to have arrested his slide and is now running even with Bradley. But what must be of concern to the Vice President is that in polling from other states, especially in the South, where Gore was expected to win easily–Bradley is showing signs of polling much closer to the Vice President.

It now appears that the Democratic contest, baring mishaps, will be close right to the end.

It still appears that both Bush and Gore have strong reserves on which they might draw the strength and support they would need to win their party’s nominations. But victories won’t be easy–and may come at a cost. Bush, if he wins, will be a wounded and weakened candidate, whom, it may appear, only won because of the support of the establishment. Alienated Republican voters who supported the maverick, may look to another maverick in the form of an independent candidate in November of 2000.

A Gore victory may produce the same kind of alienation among some liberals. Even more problematic for Gore is the prospect that if the campaign goes all the way to the end, he will have depleted all of his campaign funds–putting him in the same position as Bob Dole in 1996. Dole, it should be remembered, won but spent all of his campaign funds in the primary. During the months between the end of the primary season in June and the beginning of the election in September, when the candidates receive their allotments from the federal fund, Dole was unable to compete with the advertising blitz launched by the Clinton campaign which still had significant funds remaining.

The bottom line is that the presidential campaigns are far from over–in fact they are just beginning.

What looked like a Bush v. Gore contest could be Bush v. Bradley or McCain v. Gore or even McCain v. Bradley. At the same time, it must not be forgotten that there will also be independent and reform campaigns that will heat up next year–making the 2000 contest even more complex and difficult to predict.

It would be impossible to do a 1999 year-end wrap-up on the beginning of the 2000 election without taking a look, as well, at the congressional races. The campaigns for 33 Senate seats and all 435 congressional seats will most certainly compete for attention with the presidential elections next year.

One respected political analyst recently noted that if hunger to recoup the White House was driving Republicans in 2000, it was the equally strong desire to win back the Congress that was motivating the Democrats.

On the Senate side, Republicans hold a 10-seat edge over Democrats–55 to 45. A shift of five seats will produce a tie. This, however, looks unlikely. Of the 33 seats that are up next year, only seven of those that are Republican-held appear to be toss-ups. Four of the Democratic-held sets are. It seems unlikely that Democrats can win five of the Republican seats while holding all of theirs. But some of these contests, which we should look at more closely in the future, will be quite sensational. If both major presidential races are featuring maverick candidates, there are even more maverick candidates running campaign for the Senate. And since it appears that voters are looking more favorably at maverick candidates–these Senate races will draw considerable attention in 2000.

In the House of Representatives, on the other hand, Democratic prospects for control look much better. Here, too, the margin is a 10 seat Republican advantage. But with over 20 Republican Congressmen already having announced retirement or deciding to run for other offices, as compared with only five Democrats–the chances of Democrats picking up the five seats they need to take control of the House are much better.

Some of the Republican open seats will most certainly return to Republican control, but there are enough of them that are in districts that may vote Democratic–that Republicans are worried that their six-year long control of Congress may be coming to an end.

Just as the Republican establishment was so desirous of insuring that they cleared the field of competitors from within the establishment and raised huge amounts of money to assist a Bush victory–Democrats have done much the same (but with a better prospect of succeeding) in Congress. The party leadership convinced some Democratic congressmen who were thinking of stepping down to wait another term and recruited their best and brightest to run for open seats. In addition, the Democratic congressional committee has had a record year of fundraising to assist their cause. It will still be a difficult task to accomplish, but the drama of this contest, coupled with the excitement of a few very high profile Senate races (especially the New York contest with Hillary Clinton running against New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani) promises to provide us with a full slate of races to watch in 2000.

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