Ready or not, Campaign 2000 has begun

June 17, 1999|By David M. Shribman

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- There's no avoiding the conclusion: It has started.

Gov. George W. Bush of Texas just completed his first campaign swing through Iowa, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Vice President Al Gore officially is in the presidential race. Publisher Steve Forbes is angling for a series of monthly debates. Former Red Cross president Elizabeth H. Dole has just come out with a plan to help soybean farmers.

"People are starting to move; the thing is starting to get going," says Anthony Frederick of Bedford, N.H., the New Hampshire chairman of the Smaller Business Association of New England. "You can feel it happening."

The emergence of Mr. Bush from his Austin hibernation and the formal declaration of Mr. Gore's candidacy are markers in the campaign trail, cairns that indicate an important turning point in the path to the White House.

From this week on, the country has moved unmistakably into a new phase of its public life, where politics trumps government; the calculations of the contenders are taking the spotlight away from the actions of the elected.

Now the presidential race is being conducted in the present tense, not the future tense.

In truth, the velocity of the campaign has been growing for months. Throughout the spring, for example, the candidates have been spending increasing amounts of time on the road, especially in the early political states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Rep. John R. Kasich of Ohio, a Republican candidate, has spent 24 days in the two states since March 15, including 17 here in New Hampshire. Former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, a Democratic candidate, has spent 20 days in the two states, including 13 in Iowa.

For weeks, Mr. Bradley has been speaking in broad themes, putting off the specifics for later. "There will come a time for formal speeches and 10-point plans," Mr. Bush said the other day in Iowa.

That time is coming soon. Ms. Dole is already calling for the administration to release $145 million in emergency assistance for commodity producers. The candidates might not be ready to talk specifics, but the farmers in Iowa, not unaware that soybean prices are at a 23-year low, are ready for the money right now.

In the next couple of weeks, the velocity of the campaign will increase, and so will the stakes. And the mistakes.

The activity taking place below the surface now is important, just as the water eddies below a frozen lake are important. Early polls showed Richard Nixon beating John F. Kennedy and George Bush beating Bill Clinton, but ordinarily the voters don't change their minds dramatically after the actual election year begins, no matter how hard the candidates try. The early primaries count, but so do the early impressions.

David M. Shribman is Washington bureau chief for the Boston Globe.

Pub Date: 6/17/99

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