||One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.|
Stuart Rothenberg: Over the top
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush crossed the finish line this week, when both accumulated enough delegates during Tuesday's primaries to guarantee that they will be nominated for president.
Bush, the Texas governor, will get the GOP nomination first, in Philadelphia in late July. Vice President Gore will have to wait to become the anointed Democratic nominee in Los Angeles in mid-August.
Post-Super Tuesday polling conducted by a number of media organizations, including CNN, has shown the general election contest begins as a dead heat. Gore has erased a deficit to pull even or even a couple of points ahead of the Texas governor. But neither man begins in a commanding position, and neither is close to the critical 50 percent mark.
Bush seems to have one initial problem that Gore doesn't: how to bring his primary adversary's supporters into his campaign. Bill Bradley's supporters are so liberal that few of them will be inclined to support the Republican nominee. And while many of them backed Bradley because they were uncomfortable about Gore's character and integrity, most of them will line up behind the vice president given the alternative.
The supporters of Sen. John McCain, who has suspended his presidential bid and not yet endorsed Gov. Bush, are less likely to switch their allegiance immediately to the Texas governor.
Many of Bush's supporters were Democrats, and they have no natural inclination to support the GOP nominee. The same goes for the many Independents who cast votes for the Arizona senator in primaries that allowed non-Republicans to participate.
But even more important than the partisanship, McCain voters were attracted to the senator's personal story and outsider positioning, and Bush has neither. Polling suggests that while Bush gets a majority of McCain voters, Gore gets a very substantial share.
With Bush likely to get support from most Republicans, and Gore certain to hold onto the Democratic vote, the general election could well turn on Independents. That's why both major party presidential nominees are likely to emphasize their commitment to reform.
While Bush will talk about education reform and reforming the federal bureaucracy, Gore has already signaled that he'll jump on campaign finance reform. He's done so even though the Clinton administration has been criticized for its fund raising, and the Vice President, himself, was strongly criticized in the "confidential report" of chief campaign finance investigator Charles LaBella.
Gore 's use of campaign finance reform is a "two-fer." In addressing it, he hopes to put his own campaign finance scandals behind him, but he also hopes to appeal to swing, McCain voters who regard campaign finance reform as a measure of a candidate's overall commitment to reform.
It's still something of a risk for the Vice President to pounce on an issue on which he is potentially so vulnerable.
So what do Bush and Gore do now that their nominations are guaranteed, but the national conventions are still at least five months away? Both men will likely continue to try to set the national agenda and to reach out to swing voters. They'll also try to re-charge their batteries after months of non-stop campaigning.
At least two new big issues loom on the horizon: gas prices and China. The spike in gas prices could become a campaign issue if those prices remain high all summer. And higher gas prices could spread throughout the economy, adding to concern about inflation and ultimately raising fears of a recession.
China's unusual relationship with Taiwan has also received considerable attention recently, and both Al Gore and George W. Bush will have to deal with questions about the United States' role if China makes an effort to change the current relationship between China and Taiwan.
Where does the general election start? The ball is at the 50-yard line, meaning both candidates have about the same distance to go. The presidential election is really a series of state elections, with both Bush and Gore aiming for 270 electoral votes and the presidency.
The presidential race really boils down to a fight in a dozen or so swing states. Many states are already off the table. George Bush wins Texas, most of the South and virtually all of the Mountain States. Al Gore wins most or all of New England, New York and California.
The Electoral College action centers on the Great Lakes states, including Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Missouri is a key swing state, and Delaware often is a good indicator of which way the country (and the election) is trending. A handful of other states look especially competitive, including Iowa, Kentucky, New Mexico and possibly Arkansas.
Finally, the end of the GOP and Democratic presidential races, and the tightness of the presidential contest, will give the Reform Party (and Reform presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan) an opportunity for more media attention and impact. Though the Reform nominee isn't likely to draw a sizable percentage this year, he could just draw enough votes in a state or two to change the election's outcome.
ELECTORAL COLLEGE OUTLOOK: AL GORE (D) VERSUS GEORGE W. BUSH (R); needed to elect: 270
Alabama (9 elec. votes)
North Dakota (3)
South Carolina (8)
South Dakota (3)
Safe/Likely Bush Total: 125
New Hampshire (4)
North Carolina (14)
Advantage Bush Total: 96
Total Bush: 125 +96 = 221
New York (33)
Rhode Island (4)
West Virginia (5)
Safe/Likely Gore Total: 146
Lean Gore Total: 14
Total Gore: 146 + 14 = 160
New Jersey (15)
New Mexico (5)