Rewriting The Rules

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As the returns come sloshing in from across America, some lessons can be drawn about the interminable Campaign 2000 even before we know who the winners are. Reality Check - temporarily relocated in a grandiose glassed-walled election night headquarters high above New York - will be parsing the lessons as they become clear and passing them along to you.

In an effort to establish a new tradition for the emerging era of cyberspace political reporting - and to minimize confusion as the evening wears on - we will dub each of these capsules of campaign wisdom a Check Sheet, and number them sequentially as new trends are clearly defined.

Check Sheet #1

1. Vice presidents do matter. In 1984, your Reality Check reporter was hotfooting it from the Democratic convention hall in San Francisco to the airport to begin covering the campaign of Geraldine Ferraro, the vice presidential choice of Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale. I bumped into a well-known newspaper political reporter who inquired into my obvious state of excitement. "I'm covering the Ferraro campaign. It will be historic," I panted. He looked at me like I had just gotten off a turnip truck. "Forget it," he advised, "Nobody cares who the vice president is. Reagan will win in a walk."

He was right, of course. And for years, political insiders have believed the vice presidential choice was no more than an interesting footnote to campaigns devoid of ability to influence the overall outcome. That conventional wisdom was turned on its head this year. Bush's choice of Dick Cheney, and Cheney's soothing performance on the stump, clearly strangled in the crib the argument that the Texas governor lacked the foreign policy experience to be trusted with the nation's top office. This helped Bush immeasurably in the debates and all over tonight's electoral map.

Joe Lieberman's contribution to Al Gore's campaign was even more politically direct. As the first person of the Jewish faith to be put at the top of the ticket by either party, Lieberman stirred feelings of pride among Jewish voters, who are a significant part of the electorate in Florida, among other states. It is clear from the early returns that Gore has a good chance to win Florida. It seems likely he would not have a chance to win the election without Florida. And he could not have won Florida without Lieberman.

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2. Exotic billionaires have lost their political glow. Perot and Forbes in '96 and Forbes in 2000 contributed mightily to the retirement kitties of numerous political consultants who took their money. And they bored the voters to tears because they didn't look like the kind of person you'd want to drink a beer with, let alone put in charge of the country.

3. Also gone forever - Pat Buchanan. Isolationism and fear of immigrants gets you about 1 percent of the vote - a no-sale in the new millennium.

4. There's such a thing as Pander Barrier - and Gore shattered it. When the vice president announced he disagreed with his own administration's decision to send the ship-wrecked Cuban child, Elian Gonzalez, back home, it smelled of a brazen attempt to win Florida's Cuban American vote. Given that Gore is doing well in Florida, maybe it helped. But when the vice president called for the opening of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve as a way to combat rising oil prices he might as well have branded the phrase "Just Another Conniving Politician Looking for Easy Votes" on his forehead. It helped reinforce the image that the Bush forces were projecting of a candidate who was a Washington insider possessing some of Bill Clinton's slicker qualities.

5. Americans do not think a concealed drunk driving convention is any more a disqualifier for the presidency than wearing earth tone shirts while claiming fatherhood over the Internet.

6. Politics has now officially supplanted both WWF wrestling and corporate backstabbing as America's official "blood sport." The reason is the little plastic and silicone contraption you are now staring at. So much data, factual information and opinion is now available to voters that they are taking part in the election in a truly visceral way. And the existence of interactivity on the Web, which is getting its first real workout this year, makes presidential politics a game everyone can play. Tonight's the Super Bowl, gang.