Presidential runners gear up for final lap

THE FIRST formal stage in the US presidential election process, the caucus meetings in the mid-Western state of Iowa, may be less than one month away, but to the distress of the pollsters, American voters are still not engaged.

According to a survey last week, less than 50 per cent can identify any but the two front runners - Vice-President Al Gore and the Governor of Texas, George W Bush - despite the millions of dollars the others have already poured into advertising their strengths, and next week is unlikely to enlighten them.

For a candidate, any candidate, to be out campaigning over the holiday period would be a vote-losing breach of political protocol. The place for a would-be president is at home with his family at Christmas. A spot of church-going would not go amiss either. From Christmas to the new year, Americans will be in an election-free zone, with the pattern set by the first family. In the spirit of the season, Bill and Hillary Clinton made more joint appearances in Christmas week than in the past three months put together. They sat down with family and close friends for Christmas dinner at the White House, after a year in which President, wife and daughter have often gone their separate ways.

For presidential candidates, being at home for Christmas, and letting it be known that they are at home, is almost as much a part of electioneering as tramping the campaign trail. This year, however, the brief respite afforded by the festive season is not only a political imperative, but a physical and psychological necessity as well, reflecting a race that began unusually early, has turned out to be unexpectedly close, and is leaving an uncommonly positive impression - at least on those who are listening.

That the campaign started early is a direct result of the competition among the main political parties at state level to boost their state's image and significance. The Iowa caucuses next year are three weeks earlier than four years ago; the New Hampshire primary will be held just one week later, on 1 February. Many other states have brought their primaries forward by a month or more, so that the nominations for the two major parties could be decided as early as mid-March, when California, New York, Florida and Texas will all have voted.

While largely a product of one-upmanship among the states, the advancing of the primaries places less well-known candidates at even more of a disadvantage than before. It gives them less time to spread their message. It favours candidates with money, who can reach more people at once by buying hours of television time. And the crunching together of the primaries in the first two months means that the candidates who lose the early contests have less time to regroup their forces. The risk is that the nominations will have been won and lost before most of the voters have woken up to the fact that there is a real contest. Well aware that this would be the first "open" contest for the presidency since 1988, with the two-term incumbent barred from standing again, the grandees of each major party got organised.

Republicans were desperate to avoid a long and bruising contest for the nomination that would leave the party divided and drain money from coffers that would be more effectively used by the eventual nominee to fight the election proper. The Democratic Party establishment believed that the nomination of the vice-president, who had the wholehearted backing of a hugely popular president, was a foregone conclusion.

This was how George W Bush and Al Gore emerged as the anointed ones of their respective parties; and the earliest months of the past year bore that thinking out. By early summer, however, it was apparent that Mr Gore, for all his advantages of quasi-incumbency, would not have the clear run the party had hoped and expected. And by early last month it was clear that George Bush had not left all his rivals as far behind as he and the Republican establishment had thought.

Both found themselves challenged by individualists who thrived on their new role as scourges of the status quo. For the Democrats, Bill Bradley, the former basketball star and high-minded Senator, took a calm, leftish campaign direct to the people and acquired a personal following before the Gore campaign had got into its stride. John McCain, Republican Senator from Arizona, trading on his status as a Vietnam war hero and straight- talker, was hailed for his strength of character. The result is that the nomination contests in both parties are already far closer than anticipated, and look likely to tighten further as more voters tune in, making the campaign both more expensive for the establishment candidates and more exciting as a spectacle than either Mr Bush or Mr Gore might have hoped.

For the first time in many years, the initial skirmishes of a presidential campaign have not been accompanied by sighing from Washington's punditocracy about the lamentable state of the presidency and the equally lamentable quality of the candidates. Mr Clinton may have nearly been impeached, but the combination of personal weakness and political success that will be his legacy seems to have galvanised others to do better.

The coming election may still be of minority interest, but among voters there is an underlying pride that America can still produce people of presidential calibre, and a sense that whoever wins will have fought a good fight and deserved the prize, giving Americans yet another reason for optimism as they enter the new century.

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