The results of “Super Tuesday” are in, and by all appearances, all is as it should be. The U.S. presidential campaign looks just as it did before the race officially started. Vice President Al Gore will be squaring off against Texas Gov. George W. Bush. But appearances are deceiving. The election dynamics have been completely transformed. All of the old certainties are gone, and this year’s election now looks like a real horse race.
Fifteen states — a virtual cross section of the country — held presidential primaries Tuesday. The results did not give either the Republican or the Democratic front-runner enough votes to secure the nomination, but they made voter sentiment clear. Mr. Gore swept all the Democratic races, including those in the home and adopted states, Missouri and New Jersey respectively, of his rival, former Sen. Bill Bradley. Mr. Bush lost several states to Sen. John McCain, his chief nemesis, but won key battles in New York, Ohio and California. He is expected to win next week’s primaries in his own state of Texas and in Florida — where his brother is governor — which should put him over the top in the race for the nomination. Mr. McCain is likely to bow to the inevitable and quit the race before then.
If the lineup is as predicted six months ago, the campaign itself promises to be anything but. Both men have been tested by the primary battles, and the results are striking. Mr. Gore, the wooden performer, has revealed a personality and an intensity that had only been rumored to exist. Mr. Bradley’s challenge energized the vice president and proved that he has the drive and the desire to be president. It also proved that Mr. Gore’s machine is a formidable one, capable of mobilizing traditional Democratic support groups. Mr. Bradley’s charge during the primaries that Mr. Gore was a conservative may have helped the vice president, by broadening his appeal to independents and moderate Republicans.
For Mr. Bush, the primaries have not been so salutary. Before they began, his chief asset was the presumption that he was invincible. Mr. McCain’s primary victories put a huge dent in that image. The senator’s challenge also claimed the political center, pushing Mr. Bush to the right and closer to the religious Republicans that have dominated GOP politics since the Reagan years. Mr. McCain’s attacks on religious intolerance only highlighted the significance of that shift. Even if the senator’s challenge fades, the memory of Mr. Bush’s turn will not. There is fear in the party that this could antagonize the independent voters and moderate Republicans who are essential to a victory in November.
Mr. Bush can thank Mr. McCain for one thing: He forced the governor to fight. Like his father, Mr. Bush was considered a child of privilege, without the stomach for battle. The primaries proved otherwise. The governor put doubts to rest and showed that he, too, has the determination to win. Mr. Gore owes the senator from Arizona a thank-you as well. Mr. McCain’s candidacy deprived Mr. Bradley of the centrists and independents that he was counting on to beat the vice president.
The result is that as the two parties head to the conventions, the faces are familiar, but the campaigns are not. The momentum has been reversed. Mr. Gore now looks like a fighter and Mr. Bush seems wounded. The governor once led Mr. Gore in the opinion polls by 30 percent; the two men are now running virtually neck and neck.
The Republicans had hoped that Mr. Bush’s $70 million war chest would scare off any possible challenger and spare them the divisiveness they just went through. They were wrong. As a result, Mr. Bush’s first task is to reunite his party and then focus on Mr. Gore.
His statements Tuesday night suggest that he will be running on the “character” issue: the scandals surrounding President Bill Clinton and the campaign-finance questions that dog Mr. Gore. Unfortunately for Mr. Bush, polls show that, thus far, voters have distanced the vice president from the president’s misdeeds. Attempts to use the campaign-finance issue against Mr. Gore are likely to be frustrated by Mr. Bush’s own fundraising efforts — which will have to be stepped up, since the primaries depleted his resources — and the questions surrounding “soft” advertising by his supporters that targeted Mr. McCain.
With the nominations sewn up, the two men will now square off in a battle for the political center. Both candidates will try to cast themselves as the defender of core American values and the best bet to continue the country’s historic economic expansion. Economics and ethics are going to be the themes for the next eight months. That, too, was predictable; but it’s one thing that won’t change.
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