Gore warms up for the next race

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The Independent Online
ROLL UP, roll up! The mid-term elections are over; bring on the presidential candidates. The removal of the ballot boxes on Tuesday night fired the metaphorical starting pistol for the next big race, the contest to succeed Bill Clinton at the White House in two years' time, and the first candidates were already on the starting blocks.

For the Democrats, Al Gore was first on to the track in Washington. It was he who emerged from the White House on Wednesday morning to commend his party's performance at the polls. Mr Gore did nothing so crude as to claim credit for the results. That was left to Mr Clinton and other Democratic victors, who paid enthusiastic tribute to Mr Gore's campaigning.

The unexpected gains made by the Democrats strengthen Mr Gore's prospects, at least of winning party nomination. Standing by Mr Clinton through his troubles has paid off. So has his energetic campaigning for Congressional candidates over the past three weeks.

Dick Gephardt, the Minority leader in the House of Representatives, is probably his closest rival. He is a good, natural orator from the "old Democrat" wing of the party. That the Democrats increased their representation in the House reflects well on Mr Gephardt. That Mr Clinton emerged vindicated strengthens the "new Democrat" wing of the party, the Clinton wing - and therefore makes Mr Gore look electable. As Mr Gore's star rises, Mr Gephardt's inevitably falls.

Dark horses for the Democrats could be Bill Bradley and Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. For them, as for second-tier Republican candi- dates, the capacity to raise campaign money will be a decisive consideration.

On the Republican side, one possible candidate now looks like a non-starter: Newt Gingrich, who has already taken some of the blame for the Republicans' losses this week.

As Speaker of the House, he set the tone for the campaign, which - disappointed Republicans are now complaining - had no "real issues". With his judgement in question and his survival as Speaker uncertain, Mr Gingrich's rehearsal for 2000 has been disastrous. Not so that of George W Bush, son of the former president, whose huge majority in Texas, where he was re-elected governor, is the ideal launching pad for a presidential bid. A combination of parental pressure and Republican expectations may push him to decide whether to stand within a few weeks.

So strengthened has Mr Bush's position been by this week's elections that there is talk of him being embraced as unofficial Republican candidate as early as this weekend.

Mr Bush's decisive victory in Texas is not his only trump card. The other is a recent CNN-USA Today poll that predicts a landslide victory for him in 2000 if the Democratic candidate is Al Gore. This is why Republicans might favour "locking" Mr Bush into the Republican candidacy as soon as possible, and why Mr Gore's nomination may not be as uncontested as it looks today.

Others in the wings include Steve Forbes and Senator John McCain of Arizona.