||Jeff Greenfield is senior analyst for CNN. He will provide weekly, Web-exclusive analysis during Election 2000.|
Jeff Greenfield: If only ...
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Well, maybe it was inevitable. If a sitting vice president of the United States wants his party's nomination, he gets it -- even if the country's divided by war and upheaval (Humphrey, '68), even if he has a reputation as a trickster (Nixon '60) or a wimp (Bush '88).
And if a Republican starts the contest off as the front-runner, he will get roughed up early, but he will end up as the party's nominee. (Reagan in '80, Bush in '88, Dole in '96).
But if you could peer into the minds of top Bradley and McCain aides, you'd find some serious exercises in the mind-game of "If Only ..."
"If only," the Bradley folks say, "we had decided to skip Iowa, thus saving a couple of million dollars and keeping the focus on New Hampshire."
"If only AFL-CIO President Sweeney and President Clinton hadn't persuaded the labor movement to throw its support behind Gore last October, when his campaign was floundering."
"If only we'd had someone who knew Iowa politics in the room with us just before the Des Moines Register debate, to warn us about the former New Jersey senator's procedural vote against flood insurance."
"If only Bradley's minor heart problem hadn't surfaced just at the time of the Iowa vote, then resurfaced in the New York Times the Sunday before New Hampshire when we were coming on strong."
"If only we'd supported Oregon and Arizona and other states who wanted to move their primaries up, so that we didn't have five weeks to wait after a strong showing in New Hampshire."
"And if only John McCain hadn't taken all the play away from us with a New Hampshire landslide."
"Ah yes," the McCain folks say, "but look at our campaign."
"If only we had begun reaching out to Republicans just after New Hampshire, with appeals emphasizing his core conservative record. If only he'd talked about deregulation, school choice, and defunding public television and the National Endowment for the Arts."
"If only he had laid down his challenge to Christian conservatives as an appeal for them to strengthen their case, instead of casting it in personal terms, persuading those faith-based conservatives that he was their enemy, rather than an ally offering a fresh approach to their concerns."
"If only he hadn't spoken that one sentence in that one ad (Bush 'twists the truth like Clinton'), thus making him the author of an attack, and giving the Bush campaign permission to go nuclear against him."
"If only we'd been straight about that 'Catholic voter alert' in Michigan, instead of dancing around the simple fact that we'd paid for those telephone calls, giving the press a reason to cast doubt on our "straight talk" promise.
"If only we hadn't wasted time and energy pulling out of, then going back into, the last debate, winding up as a disembodied presence on a TV screen."
Now suppose all those "if onlys" had come true. Suppose Bradley and McCain had done everything right.
Bill Bradley would still have had to explain to Democrats why they should walk away from a vice president who has helped preside over some of the rosiest times in American history.
And John McCain would still have had to explain why Republican voters should ignore the judgment of virtually every GOP governor, senator, and representative about who should lead the party.
Maybe the victors in these contests weren't inevitable. But they weren't all that evitable, either.