Scramble for the left, right and centre

February 11, 2000

Politics professors share their reactions to the first results in the US presidential primaries. Huw Richards reports

There is a symmetry about this year's race for the presidency of the United States. Each major party has a frontrunner who is a political insider and a dynast. For Democrat vice-president Al Gore Jr, son of a senator, read Republican governor of Texas George Bush Jr, son of a president.

Both Bush and Gore face serious challengers with genuine star-quality for their party's presidential nomination.

Bush's Republican challenger, John McCain - who scored a significant victory over Bush in the New Hampshire primary a fortnight ago - was a Vietnam war hero who survived harrowing years in captivity. Gore's rival, Democrat Bill Bradley, was a professional basketball star: "He undoubtedly has the best hook shot of any of the candidates," wryly notes Byron Shafer, professor of American government at Nuffield College, Oxford.

Celebrity is more of an asset in the US system than in parliamentary Britain. But in presidential races, political credibility must supplement the glitter. Ronald Reagan's film career was less relevant than his having been governor of California. Gary McDowell, director of the Institute of United States Studies, London University, says: "You have to have paid your political dues. The system won't reward you if you haven't eaten enough bad chicken." McCain has been a senator for Arizona since 1987, while Bradley was formerly a senator for New Jersey.

This year, nobody expects a campaign between the two parties driven by competing ideologies on the lines of the 1960s civil rights campaign or Reaganism in the 1980s. Shafer points out: "While you might put them on an axis from McCain on the right to Bradley on the left, the differences are very limited. Whoever gets nominated, there will be a fight between a moderate Republican and a moderate Democrat, both of them cautious free traders." The temptation is to ask what difference it will make who wins in November.

McDowell has little doubt that it will make a difference because presidential appointments to the country's Supreme Court leave their mark long after any presidential term. He says: "The stakes are high. It is possible that two, three or even four seats on the court could come up in the next four years. Democrat appointments would be different from Republican ones."

Shafer anticipates differences in emphasis rather than huge policy cleavages between the parties: "We are likely to see classic Republican versus Democrat differences - Republicans emphasising tax while Democrats talk about social welfare. Republicans tend to emphasise strong defence and will want to talk about moral standards because of Clinton's presidency." He notes the absence of a debate about trade: "Nobody seems to want to talk about it. Both parties have protectionist elements: it could become a tricky issue."

This might appear an opportunity for the Reform Party to again scoop up those voters disenchanted with the main parties, as it did in 1996 when Ross Perot took 9 per cent of the vote. Republican hard rightist Pat Buchanan has left his party to chase the Reform nomination, but analysts discount his likely impact: "There is no sense of voter rage as there was in 1996," says Michael Foley, professor of international politics at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

Stage one for any hopeful is winning his own party's nomination. In doing so, candidates aim to balance policy positions so as to attract the activists who vote in primaries without upsetting the wider electorate.

McDowell is intrigued by Bradley's campaign: "He's taking positions further left than anything we've seen from him in years in order to pick up the activists." Yet the Democrat debate is still likely to be nuanced, with little of serious substance dividing the candidates.

Nigel Bowles, fellow in politics at St Anne's College, Oxford, says of the health debate: "You have two intelligent candidates, both in the middle ground, who know that a lot of the detail still has to be worked out."

Bradley has staked out distinctive ground in calling for campaign finance reform, an issue pursued by McCain. It reinforces their appeal as outsiders, but Bowles is not alone in suspecting that the issue appeals more to journalists and academics than to the average voter.

McCain's maverick quality is underlined by his attacks on tobacco producers, a key Republican constituency. Shafer says: "Part of his appeal is as a straight speaker - someone who says, 'you won't always agree with me, but you know you can trust me to say what I believe.' After eight years of Bill Clinton, this has an obvious appeal."

Bush's pitch for "compassionate conservatism" remains as ill-defined, though as popular in polls, as British Labour's "third way". Phil Davies, professor of American politics at De Montfort University, notes: "With George Bush as governor, Texas ranks among the bottom states in spending on education and welfare, but it puts massive amounts into prisons."

Shafer points to a number of possible readings of McCain's victory in New Hampshire: "New Hampshire was a bad state for Bush's father, and Bob Dole lost there last time, but they still got nominated. Or it might mean that McCain's strategy is working. One finding from the polls is that a lot of Bush's support is from people who simply want a Republican winner."

McCain still needs to do well in next week's Republican primary in South Carolina. "McCain's problem is that he hasn't got much money," Shafer says.

Bush and Gore still have considerable advantages over their party rivals. Davies says: "Bush has raised enormous amounts of money without even asking for it." McDowell believes the health problems that led Bradley to cancel two campaign fundraisers will help Gore: "Part of Bradley's appeal is that he is a jock and the picture of health. Suddenly he has to cancel campaign events, and voters are bound to wonder what might happen if he had to go eyeball to eyeball in a crisis as president."

History favours Gore as Democratic presidential candidate - none of our experts can remember an incumbent vice-president failing in a serious bid for his party's nomination. But it is against him in his race for the top job.

When George Bush Sr won in 1988, he was the first incumbent vice-president elected since 1836, and, as Davies notes, nobody has ever followed two terms as vice-president with two in the top job. McDowell says: "The tape of Gore saying Clinton has been 'one of our greatest presidents' will be played over and over again. He is dragging Clinton's body around with him."

So will Bush's compassionate conservatism and fluent Spanish - helping his appeal among habitually pro-Democrat Hispanics - be enough to ensure that Clinton goes into history bookended by a father and son?

Foley thinks not: "While people give Clinton low ratings personally, his ratings as president are high. The Republicans in Congress are unpopular, and Gore looks strong."

We will find out who was right in the early hours of November 8.

Betting Odds set by Byron Shafer:


Gore 2-5; Bradley 5-2Anyone else 50-1


Bush 3-5; McCain 5-3Anyone else 40-1


Gore 3-2; Bush 5-2; McCain 7-2; Bradley 9-1; Anyone else 50-1

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