Running for president these days means convincing everyone that you're going to win until they don't believe you, at which point you must persuade them that you're behind.
You can see this dynamic in the Gore-Bradley jockeying of recent days. Two months ago, the vice-president was thought to be so far ahead as to be unassailable. He was running against the putative Republican nominee, George W. Bush, not against his benign Democratic challenger. Gore did not acknowledge that the primary was a real contest. The name "Bill Bradley" did not pass his lips.
But thanks to a steady stream of media negativity toward Gore and his campaign (and sympathy for Bradley), polls began pointing to a closer race. And once it became competitive, Gore needed to play the expectations game in a different way. By moving his campaign headquarters to Tennessee and challenging Bradley to a series of debates, Gore is trying to recast himself in the position that has served Bradley well: as a scrappy challenger and an outsider rather than the front-runner. He is trying to build down expectations for himself far enough that winning the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary by a slim margin will count as a victory, rather than as failure to meet expectations.
You might think that Bradley would be pleased by his opponent's acknowledgement that it's a horse race. In fact, Bradley hates being called the front-runner. At a press conference last week, he bristled at the notion that he was expected to win the New York primary, even though he is ahead there in the polls. What Bradley is hoping for is a surge to lift him up early next year, carrying him to victory in the big primaries in New York, California and the Midwest. A wave that crests now could be a ripple by early March.
All this is happening so early that we might well go through a few more turnarounds before voters actually pick the nominee. Now that Bradley is deemed viable by the press, he's beginning to receive harsher scrutiny. A few skeptical stories about him have already appeared. Next will be articles suggesting that Gore is far from done for--he has the wonder-economy on his side, is more moderate than Bradley, has the superdelegates locked up, etc. And the whole expectations cycle will replay itself.
This dynamic has not set in on the Republican side--yet. George W. Bush is still running as if he lacks any serious opposition. But at some point, expect the press to start treating some other candidate as a plausible and promising contender. Polls will show a challenger "closing the gap" in Iowa or New Hampshire. He (or she) will make the cover of Time. At that point, Bush will appear with Al Gore's script before him. He will call for early debates, embrace "change," and say he welcomes the challenge.
P.S. I will try to start this groundswell for John McCain on Monday.
(Read more about Gore's attempt to become the media underdog in this week's Pundit Central.)