It might be a race after all. The signs from the hustings are that the 2000 U.S. presidential nominations, once thought to have been sewn up by Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush (as Democrat and Republican, respectively), might not be guaranteed. Mr. Gore’s position looks more precarious than that of Mr. Bush, but even the GOP’s heir apparent may have a scrap ahead.

As the vice president, Mr. Gore is the presumptive favorite to lead the Democratic ticket next year. A strong economy and enough distance from President Bill Clinton to escape the whiff of scandal — and underlined by a criticism or two — would normally guarantee Mr. Gore the nomination and even a win in November. But Mr. Gore seems to have gotten lost on the road to next summer’s convention. His campaign has been lackluster, his message has been obscured. Mr. Clinton’s own shortcomings have stained the vice president’s image. Worse, key Democrats — both officials within the party and leading fundraisers — worry that the vice president would be beaten by Mr. Bush. The opinion polls confirm those fears.

The beneficiary of all this is Mr. Bill Bradley, the former senator from New Jersey. Mr. Bradley overtook Mr. Gore in the New Hampshire polls and is gaining on the vice president nationally. His newfound popularity is visible where it counts: fundraising. Although Mr. Bradley has only raised about three-quarters of the money that Mr. Gore has, in the last three months, Mr. Bradley has raised more money than the vice president and he has more of it in the bank.

Chastened, Mr. Gore decided last week to move his campaign headquarters to his home state of Tennessee as part of an effort to revitalize his campaign. Conceding that he faces a “hard, tough fight” against Mr. Bradley, the vice president now says he is going “to get closer to the American people.” It is unlikely that a change of scenery will do the trick.

The vice president’s best bet is to force Mr. Bradley to define his positions. So far, Mr. Bradley has had the luxury of speaking in generalities. Now, having accepted Mr. Gore’s challenge to hold a series of debates, he will have to take stands. There is a risk here, as well: The United States stands to benefit from a campaign that debates issues and hones positions. The party, however, could be split if the fight is too bitter.

That is the danger that Mr. Bush now faces. While his financial position is unassailable — his $56 million war chest dwarfs that of any of his rivals and last week drove former Vice President Dan Quayle from the race — he faces an ideological challenge from within his party. Mr. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” is designed to soften the edges of the GOP’s conservatism, but that is too much for the hardliners on the right.

Their standard-bearer is Mr. Patrick Buchanan, who is now flirting with the Reform Party. If offered that party’s presidential nomination, Mr. Buchanan has threatened to defect and take his supporters with him. That is a distant prospect, but a sobering one nonetheless.

Mr. Bush’s chief concern is overconfidence. He has had an easy ride so far, but he knows that the real campaign rigors are to come. Although he comes from a political family and has won two terms as governor of Texas, he has not been in the national spotlight like this before. The controversy surrounding his refusal to answer questions about his past drug use is a taste of what lies ahead.

Ironically, the biggest threat to the Bush campaign could come from its greatest success to date: the size of its bank account. Last week, Sen. John McCain declared his readiness to seek the nomination and said that he intends to make campaign-finance reform the centerpiece of his run. He is no newcomer to the issue: Mr. McCain has sponsored several finance-reform bills, but each has died, usually at the hands of fellow Republicans.

The issue is a good one. Polls show that 75 percent of Americans agree with him that interest groups and lobbyists are buying influence through their contributions. Unfortunately, the voters are also skeptical about the ability to do anything about the system. They are more interested in issues such as sustaining the economy, improving education and protecting social security, all of which Mr. McCain champions — as do all other candidates.

In short, the race is on, and it is even starting to look like a real contest. If we are going to be subjected to a year and more of election-year politicking, there ought to be something worth watching. Now, there is.

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