World

The battle for 2000

The race is on— and Hillary eyes the Senate

ANDREW PHILLIPS March 1 1999
World

The battle for 2000

The race is on— and Hillary eyes the Senate

ANDREW PHILLIPS March 1 1999

The battle for 2000

UNITED STATES

The race is on— and Hillary eyes the Senate

ANDREW PHILLIPS

IN WASHINGTON

Dan Quayle has already faced The Question. So have John McCain and George W. Bush. In the post-Lewinsky era, it's a variation on the old "have-you-ever" grilling. Have you ever... used illegal drugs, cheated on your spouse, done anything else that might come back to bite you? Quayle, the onetime vice-president, told a national television audience that he has been faithful to his wife. Mc Cain, the Arizona senator, acknowl edged that his affairs broke up his first marriage, but drew the line at saying more: "I will not discuss or talk about that any more than that."

Bush, the Texas governor, faced a barrage of questions from a TV interviewer: “Is there any lapse in judgment that would make you think twice about running for president?

What about alcohol? Have you ever used drugs? Marijuana? Cocaine?”

Bush admitted he went through a period of hard drinking in his 20s, then abruptly cut off the interrogation: “I’m not going to talk about what I did as a child.”

It will take months, perhaps years, to absorb the full effects of the Lewinsky scandal on American politics. But even before the not-guilty verdict in Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial stopped reverberating in the U.S. Senate, it had changed the contours of the next major political battle—the campaign for the presidency in 2000. The vote is more than 20 months off, but the fight is well under way. For weeks, candidates and mightbe-candidates have been haunting the states that will host the first tests of political potency next February, Iowa and New Hampshire. Some have been conducting a form of political striptease—coyly announcing they are considering a candidacy, then announcing they are setting up a committee to explore the idea, then announcing they are opening a headquarters to house the people who are doing the exploring . . . and so on. And as if the road to the White House were not already long and arduous enough, more and more are facing the have-you-ever ques-

tions—and must figure out what to say and how much, ultimately, it will matter.

The post-impeachment landscape is presenting other unpredictable features. No sooner had the air gone out of the impeachment balloon than a new bubble of speculation moved in to fill the void. For weeks, Democratic party operatives had floated the idea that Hillary Clinton might embark on a brave new venture once her husband was in the clear—by running for the New York Senate seat to be vacated next year by the legendary Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Suddenly, within 48

hours of the President’s acquittal, that possibility was on the front burner. New York Democrats urged her to take the plunge, saying she could beat all comers. Her husband raised the temperature by saying she would be a “terrific” senator. Finally last week, Hillary Clinton sent out a mixed signal. She said she will “give careful thought” to being a candidate. But she said she would not decide until “later this year”—cooling speculation that she was on the brink of jumping in.

JilaL WILL give ii~i uiuc ivi a ii ous reality check. The news media, of course, loves the idea of a Hillary candidacy-the unprecedented spectacle of a First Lady running for office, especially in the bear pit of New York politics. New York maga zine last month joyfully labelled it the "Mother of all scenarios." With her popularity boosted by her wronged-woman image in the Lewinsky affair, Clinton leads polls pitting her against the Republican mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani, in a theoretical Senate race. But that lead might evaporate in a real contest, while she would have to undergo a grueffing campaign and forgo the chance to earn millions in book contracts and speakers' fees (senators earn a comparatively modest $136,700 [U.S.] a year). And if she did win in November, 2000, she would end up as just one senator out of 100-sitting amid a Republi can majority that voted in favour of convicting her husband.

8 In the still-unlikely event that Hillary Clinton does decide to run, her campaign will be at best a glamorous sideshow to the main battleground— the fight for the presidency. Both parties’ candidates will be known even earlier than usual next year—almost certainly by midMarch. In February, New Hampshire holds the first primary contest and Iowa hosts its “caucuses”—key early tests of support. But the crucial date is March 7. California decided last fall to move its primary ahead to that day, staging it at the same time as New York and three other eastern states. A week later, on March 14, Texas, Florida and another three states hold the so-called Super Tuesday primaries. With that, the country’s four biggest states will have pronounced and in all likelihood the nominees of both parties will be known—five months before their party conventions and eight months before the election.

On the Democratic side, there is next to no suspense. Vice-President Al Gore, political professionals agree, has an almost in| surmountable lead after six years in the I White House alongside Clinton. His S prospects brightened in early February 8 when the man who would have given him the toughest challenge, Representative

Richard Gephardt of Missouri, decided not to run. Another potential Gore challenger, liberal Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, also chose to stay out, leaving only onetime New Jersey senator Bill Bradley actively contesting the nomination against the vicepresident. (Veteran black activist Jesse Jackson and Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts may also enter the race.) All that means Gore can hardly fail to be his party’s candidate—though it is much less certain he can win the White House.

The real bun-fight is on the Republican side, where there is no natural heir-apparent for the nomination. So far, seven candidates have announced—or sort-of-announced— that they will run. Quayle and McCain are joined by Lamar Alexander, the former Tennessee governor who sought the nomination in 1996; billionaire publisher Steve Forbes; New Hampshire Senator Bob Smith; Christian activist Gary Bauer; and Ohio congressman John Kasich. But it is the two potential candidates who have not yet made their intentions clear who are prompting most speculation. Elizabeth Dole, wife of 1996 nominee Bob Dole, is the closest to making it official. In campaign-style visits to New Hampshire and Iowa, she has urged Republicans to recapture the optimistic spirit of Ronald Reagan, whom she served as transportation secretary.

The other non-candidate who looms over the Republican field is Bush, the Texas governor and son of the former president. George W, as he is known, has been fending off speculation about a presidential bid for months as he concentrated on winning reelection in Texas. He has worried publicly about the effects of seeking the White House on his family, but in January his wife, Laura, let it be known that she would support him. Bush’s well-advertised brand of “compassionate conservatism” and his successful track record in Texas puts him at the top of the Republican heap in polls of potential candidates. But analysts caution that such ratings mean little when candidates have not defined their issues, or even formally said they will run.

Even less sure is the eventual presidential matchup. A Los Angeles Times poll showed that both Bush and Dole would beat Gore now, but almost anything could happen in the next 20 months. Republicans are still scrapping over what lessons to draw from the impeachment fight—whether to switch to a different message or keep talking about “values” in the hope that voters may punish Gore for the scandals of the Clinton administration. One thing, though, seems sure: the candidates will find themselves forced to grapple with intrusive questions like those put to Quayle, McCain and Bush. What’s less clear is whether, with the experience of the past year behind them, voters will care much about the answers. □