Even as Gore tries to distance himself from Clinton, big brother Bill had helped clear most of the bullies off the playground before Al went out to play. Not only was Clinton the only president in modern times to endorse his vice president at the start, but he also turned his formidable money machine over to Al and let the veep announce billions in government largess.
As a result, little Al still doesn't have the playground to himself, but he's clearly playing with the best toys in the yard. This strategy has enhanced Gore's front-runner status and yielded much early cash and endless endorsements. Only one Gore challenger means more money. More money means more votes. More votes equal a convincing Gore nomination. At least that's the insiders' view.
But Gore must still win the nomination by himself, with his own agenda and vision while undoing a less than flattering opinion of him among voters. He should win the nomination, but there's a downside to having only one opponent.
Voters who don't like Gore will vote for former Sen. Bill Bradley. They have no other choice, and don't underestimate the old basketball player. He may not light fires under voters, but he is smart, well-funded and has an outsider appeal. His greatest asset is that he isn't slick.
Gore seems to be running from his boring image. Not only won't that work, but his handlers should realize, after Clinton, that boring may well be an asset.
So what does this all mean? The GOP has turned the electoral process over to political insiders who are rolling the dice on an appealing candidate with no agenda, a shaky business history and a dangerous inclination to be slick. The Democrats have relied on the White House to clear the field for Gore and, barring a Bradley upset, have rigged the nomination for the vice president. But at what price?
Contested primaries help define the winning candidate. Better to be tested in battle and win than to be handed the crown.
This year's return to the back room has already yielded one clear result. The presidential primaries have been cheapened for those who should decide the nominees: the voters.*