Here It Is —'s Homestretch 101!

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Al and Tipper Gore make a campaign stop in Shreveport, La.

And around the stretch they come, baring their teeth and shaking their fists and raising their arms and smiling. George W. Bush and Al Gore, the two imperfect major-party candidates for president. Two weeks to go, and the thing is so close its shape is barely perceptible.

But there is something. Bush, who has already once in this race found coasting to be a fruitless endeavor, is trying it again after a cluster of potentially self-fulfilling polls — Americans love to pick a winner — showed him emerging from the debate season with a just-bigger-than-margin-of-error-sized lead. A little daylight. Ever since, Bush has been grinning, and the lead has been shrinking.

Gore Goes Nostalgic

So Gore has grabbed his pointer and chalk, determined to teach his way over the top. "Are you ready for some issues and specifics?" Gore roared in Everett, Wash., Monday — a battle cry nobody's ever tried before. The aides promise a topic a day: prosperity, education, the new economy, environment and energy, tax cuts and health benefits. And in doing so, a reminder that the veep has been part of the most unceasing period of prosperity in American history. Gore may be determinedly keeping Clinton at arm's length — and clearly expecting some integrity points for doing so — but in Little Rock on Tuesday the meat of his stump speech was the last eight years.

One last time, class. Gore will work 17-hour days, go to every battleground state, crowd and kitchen table, and preach his issues, detail by policy detail. He will stress "choices," "priorities," and the "are you better off" question, on whatever topic and in whatever degree of southern twang is appropriate to the gathering. His political sense drives him to promise a continuation; his vanity makes him promise change. And he's banking that if he explains himself long enough and well enough, voters will do their homework, vote with their heads and choose him over the red sports car in the dealership across the street.

Bush's Special Offer: Your Money Back!

Bush is sending out his friends. The 29 other GOP governors, the guys who drafted him in the first place, have divided up into teams and will crisscross the country explaining how well Bush works with Democrats. They will promise that with their man, things will get done. That Bush will make the federal government small enough for a lightly experienced governor to run, and that this political child can amble into Washington and soothe the savage beasts.

Bush will call Gore the "obstacle-in-chief" to government reform, as he did in Iowa Monday. He'll talk about big-spending liberals, and the futility of going to Congress with your dukes up, and how states, towns and ordinary people can spend their money better than Washington can. And he'll be offering them their money back. Gore talks about surplus reinvestment, Bush about a surplus dividend. Gore is running as a book-devouring pugilist; Bush as a backslapping manager who'll get all the thinkers on the same page.

Battleground Bouts

The last two weeks of this race look to be a microcosm of the summer. Bush grabs lead, for reasons that still baffle — Freshness? Likeability? Conservatism? — Gore chugs back on the issues but seems, for a good-times incumbent, to have a curious problem closing the deal. And though the polls are the prevailing wind, the campaign will be won in swing-state bunkers. You want a game of inches? The death of Mel Carnahan in Missouri may have won it for Bush already.

Both men are spending and stumping in crucial states they expected to be able to ignore by now. Gore is still playing defense in California, Bush in Florida. Gore has Nader gnawing on his left flank in the Northwest and Midwest battlegrounds; Bush is struggling with a gender gap and a slight undecideds problem. Each is trying to lure a constituency to the polls — Gore the poor, Bush the young — that has never bothered to show up before.

Bush is ahead in the polls. Gore is breathing hot upon his neck. The thing is gonna be close.

Introducing Peter Lorre

Which is not to declare that this is an exciting race; it is or it isn't, depending on one's tastes, and evidently a lot of people find it rather uninteresting. It seems to have been a gleefully polarizing race, at least, for the Democrats and Republicans. Nobody seems much ashamed of their roots in this one, with the possible exception of Bush and his Religious Right, which has been graciously silent throughout. Hear George W. Bush talk tax cuts, and you hear Republicans gleefully rejoining the battles of the Gingrich revolution in the age of surplus. Washington's battle of the boom — for control. For the credit.

Only this time the Republicans have got themselves a salesman that people seem to like, who gives some people a goofy sense of hope, despite the almost universal feeling that this man will need the hardest-working aides in Washington. And the Democrats have put up a man (really, he put himself up) who has gone left and made himself a fatter target for the GOP crosshairs than Bill Clinton ever was. A guy who, despite significant brainpower and numerous accomplishments, strikes a lot of people as Clinton's Peter Lorre.

Thar Be Issues, Too

If you're not one of the despairing 5 percent or so convinced that the whole idea of "differences" between the parties is a colossal dupe, all the ideological whooping and hollering of Bush and Gore could be seen as almost idealistic. There are principles at work here, believe it or not.

Bush and the Republicans say everybody deserves the same tax cut, fully satisfied that the richest will reap the richest rewards; Gore and the Democrats say the best thing to do is to focus on those who need it more. Bush wants an expensive renovation of Social Security; Gore wants to put a new coat of paint on it. Bush tends to hold truck with the private sector; Gore is convinced government has its duties and can perform them admirably, if nourished. Gore seems a little more strenuous about the environment, Bush a little more stingy with our national influence abroad. Gore is more apt to try to keep some money out of politics — it doesn't seem to bother Bush, as long as all the power brokers respect each other and the right wheels get greased. Right. Left. Republican. Democrat. They're not evil men, just politicians.

And a Sting in the Tail

One of these guys is going to be president. One of them is going to have to shove whatever he can through a very tense and very divided Congress, deal with some very persistent troubles overseas, and entertain the nation while doing it. The country will go about its business in the meantime, and will doubtless come out fine, give or take. Al Gore desperately wants the job but is determined to win or lose on his own merits. George W. Bush can't wait to get started — it looks like a real hoot.

And one of them will probably be there when the economy claims its downturn, and the other side will crow endlessly, and unless they've both been seriously underestimated as potential leaders, one of these unlucky guys is going to get run out of Washington on a rail. Big time.