Primary blitzkrieg and presidential politics

April 12, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

PRESIDENTIAL campaigns in gentler days used to be compared with sports events - for example, a horse race in which there were winter-book favorites and handicapping, leading to a winner and losers.

Or baseball, with the primary elections cast as a sort of spring training, leading up to the World Series in November.

More recently, with the advent of political hired guns whose motivation is to win at any cost, the comparison increasingly has been not with sports, but with warfare. A candidate's objective is to attack and destroy his opponent and his reputation, usually couched in the more polite term of defining him before he can define himself.

But what's going on now in the 2000 presidential campaign is a kind of phony political battle, not unlike what was called the phony war in the first months of World War II, after the Nazis in September 1939 launched their blitzkrieg invasion of Poland until April 1940 when they moved into Denmark and Norway.

That period saw a rather bizarre lull in any major aggressive movement by Hitler, as he threw out phony peace offers to Britain and France and plotted his French invasion while waiting for favorable weather through what was one of Western Europe's fiercest winters in half a century.

This time around, the blitzkrieg was the lightning-fast series of presidential caucuses and primaries, from Iowa in January to Super Tuesday on March 7, after which only Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush were left standing.

Now a relative quiet has descended over the presidential campaign that is likely to last almost as long as the phony war of World War II, at least until the two major-party conventions this summer -- the Republican starting on July 31 in Philadelphia and the Democratic on Aug. 13 in Los Angeles, with the Reform Party convention thrown in between the two in Long Beach, Calif.

With both Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush having depleted most of their campaign treasuries in beating off the nomination challenges in their parties, they are reduced to limping around the country to the remaining, meaningless, state primaries in an attempt to stir up interest for the fall campaign and further ventilating the issues they hope will win for them.

They keep busy lobbing charges from a distance against each other, essentially hunkered down in the safe trenches of friendly party precincts. After a veritable blitz of debates in each party during the primaries, there is no likelihood that they will face each other directly until after the conventions, and probably not until well into the fall.

Debates have become too critical to election outcomes, and too risky, for the principals to engage in them before then.

While this phony campaign gives the candidates time to raise more money to be spent between now and the conventions (which federal money finances, as well as the general elections) and more time to work out their strategies, it is likely to be a long bore for a public that in recent elections has already demonstrated its boredom by low turnouts.

While Mr. Bush, no doubt, is relieved that he no longer has to campaign frantically to turn away the challenge of Sen. John McCain, that challenge managed to generate a revival of sorts in public interest as long as it lasted, as demonstrated in record primary turnouts in South Carolina and elsewhere. With nothing to vote about until November, chances are many voters will take themselves a vacation from politics the rest of this spring and early summer.

Since the general election for all practical purposes has begun, Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore could reawaken interest with debates now, but with the polls showing them running close these days, don't count on it. Rather, expect to see more months of verbal grenades tossed from one trench to another. The phony campaign is an argument in itself to stretch out the primaries and caucuses through the spring of 2004, so that more debates are held and the nominations are not clinched so early next time, as a result of the political blitzkrieg that happened this year.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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