On a more relevant note, arcane stories can take on huge significance during the great lull. The leak of Valerie Plame’s identity surfaced as a political issue when she testified to Congress in March 2004. In 2000, Cuban refugee Elián González became a political issue, and stayed in the headlines for four months, when Gore broke with the Clinton administration on its handling.
KEY DATES Could be any time
PREDICTION McCain and Clinton wrap up their nominations. The emergence of these two “establishment” candidates becomes a rallying point for third-party candidates. Ralph Nader and Ron Paul both work on getting onto ballots, as does a nativist/populist candidate, likely Lou Dobbs. Bloomberg makes noise but ultimately chooses not to run.
ELIMINATED Giuliani, Huckabee, Obama
Leg 5: Dirty Season (August 25 through September 25)
The national party-nominating conventions signal the kickoff of the real campaign — and of efforts to destroy the reputations of the opposing candidates. The notorious Swift Boat campaign began in mid-August 2004 — some RNC attendees in New York wore purple band-aids to mock Kerry’s supposedly unearned Purple Hearts — and picked up steam after the conventions. The George Bush National Guard story surfaced on 60 Minutes in September. It was during this stretch that Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert suggested that al Qaeda leaders wanted John Kerry to win. Swift Boater John O’Neil’s hit-piece Unfit for Command became a best-seller during the 2004 dirty season, as did Kitty Kelley’s The Family gossip-fest about the Bush clan.
If anything, this year figures to be even dirtier, particularly if Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee — the Swift Boat attacks will look like schoolyard taunts by comparison.
But make no mistake, the sharp and ugly divisions in this country between left and right guarantee ugly charges and countercharges no matter who the nominees are, and whether those nominees approve of the attacks or not.
In 2004, Kerry made the mistake of trying to keep a positively themed convention; Bush-bashing was seldom allowed from the dais. That lesson has been learned — for every call for hope and optimism, expect two accusations about the cold, uncaring, or corrupt opposition.
KEY DATES Democratic National Convention, August 25–28; Republican National Convention, September 1–4
PREDICTION Clinton focuses the Democratic convention on domestic issues, berating Republicans on the economy, health care, energy, and the environment. McCain focuses on world threats and Clinton-bashing. Clinton chooses a safe, bland vice-president from a battleground state, probably Governor Ted Strickland of Ohio. McCain tries to shore up his right flank with a Southern conservative, perhaps Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina.
ELIMINATED Non-elimination round
Leg 6: The Final Push (September 26 through November 4)
The debates, usually starting about seven weeks before the election, kick off the terminal phase of the campaign. Final themes are set, lasting impressions are made, and the polls begin to establish where the battles will take place. From there on, it’s carefully targeted TV ads and rallies, up through the final get-out-the-vote effort.