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The connection between '98 and 2000

How November's results could affect the 2000 presidential race

By Craig Staats/AllPolitics

WASHINGTON (September 16) -- Along with determining which party controls Congress, the November midterm elections could at least partly shape what looks increasingly like a wide-open race for the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations in 2000.

The fact is, many would-be presidential candidates two years from now have a stake, directly or indirectly, in what happens this fall. The November results could amount to either a leg up or an obstacle to overcome for them.

Gephardt
House Minority Leader
Dick Gephardt
 

First, there are House Speaker Newt Gingrich and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. Both could run for president in two years, and what happens in November will determine how they position themselves in '99 and 2000.

If Democrats somehow regain the House despite President Bill Clinton's troubles because of his affair with Monica Lewinsky, and Gephardt becomes speaker, he would then have to weigh his chances for the Democratic nomination versus his power as House speaker.

Gingrich would have to make a similar calculation if he remains in the job, and he has told New Hampshire state Republican leaders he won't decide whether to run for president until Labor Day 1999. But he has visited the state several times this year.

Bush
Gov. George W. Bush  

Gephardt is coy about his future plans, though lately he has asserted his independence from the White House with some frank talk about impeachment in the wake of the Lewinsky affair. Gephardt raised eyebrows late last month when, in response to a reporter's question, he noted the nonpartisan nature of the Watergate hearings and said, "I hope we can do that again."

Then there are the Bushs -- George and Jeb.

In Texas, Republican Gov. George W. Bush appears headed toward re-election over state land commissioner Garry Mauro. A commanding victory this fall would help Bush, who has not been tested in a national campaign, to get in position for 2000. For now, George Bush is only talking about his re-election as governor, though he topped a May preference poll in which 30 percent of Republicans nationwide said he was their first choice.

In Florida, Jeb Bush is in a tighter race with Democratic Lt. Gov. Buddy McKay, but also favored to win. No one has mentioned Jeb Bush as presidential material, but if he wins, he would at least be in a position to help his brother two years from now in an important state that Bill Clinton carried in 1996.

What about the Democrats? A year or so ago, Al Gore looked like the Democratic heir apparent, someone who could fend off people like Gephardt, former senator Bill Bradley and Sens. John Kerry, Bob Kerrey and Paul Wellstone and capture the nomination without breaking a sweat.

Gore
Vice President Al Gore  

The only doubters were people who watched Gore's lackluster performance in two recent high-pressure situations. One was his debate with GOP vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp in 1996 when Gore at times came across like a school teacher lecturing a group of slightly slow students; the other was his legalistic "no controlling legal authority" news conference in March 1997.

Now, with new Justice Department inquiries about what Gore said about those White House fund-raising calls and his association with the embattled Clinton, Gore looks far less commanding a candidate, and more big-name Democrats may be entertaining thoughts of 2000.

CNN's Frank Sesno reports that some Democratic strategists see Bradley, the former New Jersey senator, as a possible "white knight" who managed to leave Washington with his reputation intact and might be a savior if the Lewinsky scandal leaves Gore too damaged.

True to the traditional role of a vice president, Gore has been slavish in his support for Clinton.

"He is my friend," Gore said during his weekend West Coast trip. "And he is our president. And let me tell you, his policies have been good for the United States of America."

To the extent the November elections become a referendum on Clinton's illicit affair with Lewinsky and his lies to the American people, it could taint all those around him, including Gore.

For one group of would-be GOP candidates, the '98 results will be more important as a source of potential bragging rights than for anything else.

If Republicans make big gains in the House and Senate, you can expect Republicans like Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft, publisher Steve Forbes, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander and former vice president Dan Quayle will be quick to interpret the results as a show of support for a Republican president in 2000. Many of them have stayed busy recently in Iowa, laying the groundwork for the first-in-the-nation caucuses.

It's dangerous, of course, to forecast too direct a link between what happens this fall and November 2000. Fortunes rise and fall quickly in politics, sometimes as quickly as a weekend. One pivotal turn in the 1996 campaign occurred in a matter of a few days in New Hampshire, when Bob Dole knocked down a surging Alexander with some well-timed TV spots.

If the Lewinsky scandal leads to impeachment hearings, that could dominate 1999 and be far more important in shaping the landscape leading into the 2000 race than what happens on November 3.

It could also boost candidates who have been out in front recently on questions of the president's morality, like Ashcroft or Forbes.



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