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It was only a matter of time, but it still seems too soon. In the past week, Mr. George W. Bush, the governor of Texas, and Mr. Al Gore, the vice president, officially opened campaigns for the U.S. presidential elections to be held in November next year. The two men are not the only candidates in the race, but they are the front-runners; at this point, the nominations are theirs to lose.

As the two men square off, it may seem as though they are staring into a mirror. Both come from political families, and each will have to work to establish his own identity as a candidate. Mr. Gore is doubly burdened with the perceived sins of the Clinton administration; such is every vice president’s lot. (This century, only one sitting vice president has vaulted directly into the commander-in-chief’s chair. Ironically, it was Mr. Bush’s father who accomplished that feat in 1988.)

Mr. Bush probably has a slight advantage over his rival, who spent 16 years in the Congress before moving to the White House, since the governor has never been a Washington insider. In the United States, few labels carry more sting than “Beltway professional.” Mr. Gore has countered on two fronts. First, he argues that experience is needed to make Washington run properly, a strategy that also hits at the core of Mr. Bush’s campaign — his success in uniting his state behind him and mobilizing its diverse constituencies to pursue his priorities. Second, Mr. Gore is reshaping his image. He opened his campaign in his hometown of Carthage, Tenn., and his speech emphasized the values of small-town America, a theme that every candidate will repeat ad infinitum in the months ahead.

The “values” message goes directly to the heart of Mr. Gore’s biggest task — distancing himself from the faults of President Bill Clinton, while simultaneously trying to take credit for the administration’s accomplishments. In contrast to Mr. Clinton, the vice president has a reputation for moral probity. In his first comments as a candidate, Mr. Gore has made clear his disappointment with the president’s behavior and set the moral standards for his administration. (In another of the campaign’s ironies, Mr. Bush may be vulnerable on this front. He has acknowledged a somewhat wild youth, and has not yet been forced to address the issue.)

Current history is likely to be more important to the election outcome than any youthful indiscretions a couple of decades ago. As always, the economy will be central to the campaign. If the U.S. continues its remarkable run, Mr. Gore’s hand will be strengthened. A dip in economic performance — which many economists anticipate by next year — will give a challenger a boost. Mr. Bush would say that is only fair, since President Clinton benefited from the policies adopted by his predecessor; unfortunately for the incumbent in 1992, the U.S. economy suffered a mild recession at the time of the election.

Mr. Gore is also the administration’s front man when it comes to dealing with Russia. If relations with Moscow melt down — which, as recent events in Kosovo suggest, is a possibility — Mr. Gore will take the heat. Similarly, as befits an activist vice president, he has been leading U.S. policy on the environment and high technology. While that experience buttresses his claim to know how Washington works — and provides a powerful contrast to Mr. Bush, who like candidate Clinton before him, is chided for having no foreign-policy experience — it provides no cover if things go wrong.

In other words, a great deal can happen before the next election. Mr. Gore will need to keep an eye on former Sen. Bill Bradley, who may prove to be a formidable challenger if the party decides the Clinton record is too burdensome. Since neither man has the president’s gift for pressing the flesh, the Democratic race promises to be a long haul.

The Republican campaign could be more exciting. Although Mr. Bush is out in front, there are several other challengers, such as Mrs. Elizabeth Dole, Sen. John McCain, magazine publisher Mr. Steve Forbes and firebrand Mr. Pat Buchanan. The most dangerous challenger could be former Vice President Dan Quayle. Mr. Quayle is the darling of the right and he will hammer away at Mr. Bush’s pragmatism. The Democrats could not ask for more: They would like to see the party captured by the far right so they can then claim that the GOP does not represent most Americans. Even if that does not occur, the Democrats would be happy to see the party’s two wings tear each other up in the primaries. Let the race begin.

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