||One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.|
Stuart Rothenberg: The new race
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Two weeks ago, the shape of the 2000 presidential race looked crystal clear. Today, it's much cloudier.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush's double-digit lead over Vice President Al Gore, which included a convincing Electoral College majority, eroded quickly. Initially, voters saw the Republican as both a moderate and a strong leader. Gore, on the other hand, seemed weak, inarticulate and burdened by public fatigue with Bill Clinton.
Worried about the vice president's speaking skills and inability to cash in on the strong economy, a growing number of Democrats wondered openly whether Gore could win in November.
But while most political reporters thought that Gore's convention speech was not much more than adequate, voters seem to have had a more upbeat view. They were impressed with the vice president's energy and populist rhetoric, and they apparently now see him not only as a leader but as better able than Bush to handle issues such as health care, education and Social Security.
Gore was going to get a "bounce" from his Los Angeles convention as long as the event wasn't a total disaster, but the size of his bounce was unexpected to most neutral observers.
Some GOP strategists all along predicted a tight contest after the conventions, and they insist that there is nothing surprising about the fact that Bush's 10 to 15 point advantage has vanished.
"With the country evenly divided between the parties, two strong candidates for president, and both parties having the same money for the general election, why shouldn't the race be tight?" asked one veteran Republican operative recently.
But other GOP insiders are at least a bit shaken. While they expected the race to tighten after Los Angeles, they didn't expect the vice president to be even or a little ahead. And some Republican strategists are admitting that Gore is better positioned than Bush right now, since the vice president's populist rhetoric carries some punch and Bush is searching for a message beyond "I won't screw up the economy, and you can trust me more than the other guy."
Bush seems far less confident that he did just ten days ago, while Gore looks like a new man. The vice president's speaking style hasn't merely improved -- it seems to have undergone a full-scale overhaul. He no longer agonizes over every word, or approaches every question as if it were part of an exam on semantics. Instead, he is relaxed, cordial and articulate, and he sounds much more thoughtful than in the past. He also exudes confidence.
The vice president's "bounce" should last longer than his opponent's, since voters won't be distracted by another convention. But Gore's bounce is likely to erode a bit, just as Bush's did. And if that happens, the presidential race will be in a statistical dead heat, at least until campaign events, and possibly the debates, force voters toward one candidate or the other.
Still, given prosperity and peace, Gore's very narrow edge over Bush (which might already be gone) shouldn't lead Democrats to be too optimistic. Bush demonstrated his toughness during his primary fight with Arizona Sen. John McCain, and the Texan has been underestimated before.
The biggest losers from the two major party conventions appear to be Green Party nominee Ralph Nader and the eventual Reform Party nominee.
Gore's populist rhetoric in Los Angeles firmed up the Democratic base and should appeal to some voters who were flirting with Nader. And the closeness of the general election contest means that few voters will throw away their vote to either the Green or Reform nominee.
Both Bush and Gore have solidified their party bases. Now the fight will be over swing voters and weak partisans. In this time of partisan parity, that's probably the way it should be.