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Brace Yourselves for the Battle of the Millennium

Will Presidential Politics Ever Change? Oh Yeah, and Then Some.

November 03, 1996|Eleanor Randolph | Eleanor Randolph, a Times staff writer based in New York, covers media and politics

Outside Whitley's Seed and Farm Supply store, the sweet smell of grain and the sickly odor of fertilizer floated gently over a crowd of about 100 people waiting to see their first national politician, the first big name that anybody could remember stopping in Snead, Ala., for more than a Coke and a decent set of directions. * Yet here was Dan Quayle, former vice president, clearly happy to be in Whitley's parking lot, flashing his famous boyish smile at a baby, an old man, a distant camera. "Mr. Quay-ell," Annie Cleveland shouted as he came within earshot. The 66-year-old reached out for her quarry, as much to steady herself as to touch this political superstar in his white city shirt and his dark Washington trousers and shining black shoes. * "You should be the president," she declared urgently, as if she needed to make certain he had considered it. Quayle stared a moment, grinned and then wrapped his arms around Cleveland as if he were a nephew greeting his favorite aunt. * "Would you support me?" he whispered. "Would you?" * "I sure would," Cleveland began nodding. "I would, for sure." * And so, on that cool afternoon in September, Dan Quayle enlisted Annie Cleveland of Alabama into his brigade of supporters, just as he had won over the others in Texas a day earlier or in Florida a day later or all those who saw him between Labor Day and Election Day, when Quayle campaigned for more than 65 Republican candidates running for office this season. Voter by voter, candidate by candidate, brick by brick, George Bush's vice president has been building the kind of rock solid support that could sustain a presidential campaign in the next millennium.

It is a lot of work even for an energetic 50-year-old, but this is the old-fashioned way to run for president--by "collecting chits and paying dues," as they say in the political world. Quayle--like a number of other unannounced presidential hopefuls--will have paid a lot of dues and collected a lot of chits by the year 2000.

Yes, that's right, the year 2000. Here we are, only three days away from the 1996 presidential election (with President Clinton a lap ahead in the polls at deadline time), and already the political establishment has moved on to the next presidential race. And even though political fortunetelling is a hazardous business, it doesn't take a Tarot deck to foresee that the first race for the White House in the next thousand years will be a doozy.

For starters, candidates will need vats of money--one estimate is that they will spend a total of $2.4 billion seeking office in 2000--about three times what was spent this political season. And they'll need to get accustomed to new ways of campaigning. Barring some electronic breakdown or deadly computer virus, the Internet will become a force instead of a distraction with political ads on the World Wide Web and maybe even e-mail precinct captains.

Perhaps the political party conventions will acknowledge that they are really massive political ads and, therefore, they will be broadcast by each party on their own political networks. Whether the major networks will cover the conventions live is a question that sparked numerous debates in San Diego and Chicago this summer, but such issues will undoubtedly look quaint by 2000 as viewers will have access to news in so many different forms and by so many different media.

Already political experts are quietly asking themselves whether the primary schedule should change, whether the ads were too negative, whether Clinton's yearlong ad campaign is the wave of the future, whether the charges and countercharges were counterproductive because the counterattacks were often launched before most people even saw the attack. Pollsters are charting the demographics, and campaign strategists are wondering what the new big voting blocs--more older voters, more women, more Asians, more Hispanics--will want next time around.

And finally, there will be candidates of every political flavor--all jockeying to be the first president elected for the next millennium.

THE CANDIDATES -- "Aaaauuuughhh," Democratic pollster Peter Hart groans. "The first thing I would say to your readers is, 'Spare me.' They don't even get to the end of the last reel when you say to them, 'Oh, by the way, the next movie is starting even though you thought this one was way too long.' "

As for his predictions about who might be starring in the next one: "It's a fool's errand." Not only is it difficult to predict who will be running by the year 2000, he says, it's impossible. In fact, he has won more than a few wagers over the years by asking friends to write down predictions like this: five names of candidates in four years, the next big one. He pays them $10 for every one they get right. They pay him $50 if they get them all wrong.

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