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Unwatched, campaign has taken shape

Millions have been raised. Candidates have come and gone. And all that happened even before this election year started.

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 3, 2000


In the new millennium, historians who study the 2000 presidential election will start with 1999.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush raised more than $67-million and proposed a record tax cut. Vice President Al Gore changed wardrobes, consultants and campaign headquarters as he tried to take credit for the Clinton administration's accomplishments while moving out of its shadow.

Two reformers, Republican John McCain and Democrat Bill Bradley, emerged as competitive challengers to the front-runners in their respective parties. More familiar names, from Elizabeth Dole to Richard Gephardt, dropped out of the race long before Christmas or never made it to the starting line.

All of this occurred in the year before the election, without a single vote cast. Yet in an era when a smaller percentage than ever of adults vote, most are only vaguely aware of the campaign or the candidates.

What might motivate more voters to tune in as the 2000 campaign progresses is difficult to predict, political scientists and voting experts say.

"Nothing has happened to change the general trends," said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

In 1992, the percentage of voting-age Americans who went to the polls rose for the first time in more than 30 years because of concerns about the sagging economy.

Now the economy is booming. Unemployment, crime and welfare rolls are dropping. There is no hostage crisis. No American soldiers are being killed.

"There may not be a problem that needs to be fixed," said Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University. "For the casual person, there may be other things to be interested in besides politics. There's nothing for them to be angry about."

So the candidates are doing their best to stir voters up.

Bush defended his tax cut proposal in a recent debate by warning that as president, Gore or Bradley would go on wild spending sprees with the budget surplus.

Gore claims a share of the credit for the strong economy and argues he can keep it humming. He contends that Bush's tax cuts or Bradley's health care plans would suck up the budget surplus and threaten the good times.

"Having been a part of the policymaking team that has put this economic formula in place, I think that I can probably make the case that I have experience that the other candidates haven't earned," Gore said in an interview after speaking at the Florida Democratic Convention in December. "You look at their proposals and it's evident they're just all squandering the surplus to try to make campaign pledges. My first campaign pledge is to keep this prosperity going and use the resources that it's earned us to solve the other problems."

Of course, Bradley acknowledges the economy is good. But he argues that prosperity should enable the country to invest in providing better access to health coverage and eliminating child poverty.

"We cannot rest in this country and say we've got a good economy unless we have more and more Americans moving to higher ground," he told Florida Democrats in a speech.

But it's doubtful many Americans are listening to any of these declarations so far from the general election.

The early start of the 2000 election can be traced to two factors: scheduling and money.

In an effort to hold or increase their influence, states such as California advanced their primary elections in the calendar. The result is that the Iowa caucuses are Jan. 24 and New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary is Feb. 1, the earliest ever. By March 14, both Republicans and Democrats will have allocated about two-thirds of the delegates to their national conventions. Some past primary battles were just warming up by that time.

The compressed primary schedule forced candidates to start raising millions of dollars much earlier. No longer can candidates hope to do well enough in early contests to replenish their campaign accounts before the next primaries. An inability to keep the money flowing forced Republicans Lamar Alexander, Dan Quayle, John Kasich and Dole from the race months before any contest that counted.

Yet voters are barely paying attention.

Fewer than half of the registered voters knew Bradley was a professional basketball player, according to a nationwide survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. While 53 percent knew Bush is governor of Texas, just 15 percent knew both Gore and Bradley had been U.S. senators.

The numbers were even worse when it came to public policy positions of the two Democrats. Just 24 percent knew both Bradley and Gore support abortion rights. Only 19 percent knew both candidates support banning handguns known as Saturday night specials.

The nationwide survey questioned 1,667 voters and is accurate within 2.4 percentage points. Even the survey's timing was affected by the early start of the campaigns; it was originally planned for January.

"There is a certain group of people following the debates who really know a lot about the candidates," particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire, said senior research fellow Dan Romer at the Annenberg Public Policy Center. "Then you have the rest of the country sitting on the outside, waiting for something to happen."

In an age when any viable campaign e-mails supporters and has a spiffy Web site, Gans remains skeptical that the percentage of Americans who vote will creep up this year. He discounted the good economy as a reason for indifference, noting that voting numbers increased between 1932 and the mid-1960s in a period of general economic satisfaction.

"The issue isn't satisfaction," Gans said, "but that the impulse to civic duty has been eroded."

Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida professor, said there is one group that regularly follows political campaigns and votes: seniors.

"That's why everybody is hand-picking them as the critical vote," said MacManus, the author of a new book that tracks voting patterns of seniors. "They're the most reliable, most engaged, most interested and most loyal."

Enticing other voters, she said, may take a close race or an economic downturn.

But Bradley said he believes voters think about more than a particular issue or their personal economic situation when selecting a candidate for president.

"People at a moment might be satisfied or happy or whatever," he said in an interview. "But they also are thinking of the future when it comes to a president. Where is this guy going to take us?

"Things are good now, but we know things could be better and we know that there are things we could do. Is this the person we trust with our life and our job, basically? You know what ends up on the president's desk is unknown now, and usually it's not good. You have to have confidence that the person that is going to be there is going to be able to handle the unknown."

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