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The Racing Form

There's no doubt that, right now, the horserace providing the most work for professional handicappers is the Republican one. But there are high stakes riding on other courses, too. Some of the big questions in the handicapper's notebook as the ponies come into the Super Tuesday stretch:

1) If Bill Bradley doesn't win this Tuesday's primary in Washington State, will he quit the race - even before Super Tuesday?

2) How much does Al Gore fear a Republican offensive on two fronts: China-related contributions to the Clinton-Gore '96 campaign and allegations that Gore "allies" were involved in corrupt Russian government-big business schemes to siphon off U.S. government aid money?

3) What's the "real deal" on Ross Perot? Is he or is he not ready to help John McCain? Will he run himself, or field somebody as a "Reform Party" candidate? Maybe McCain, should the Arizona senator lose the Republican race to George W. Bush?

Topic 1: Will Bradley pull out if he doesn't take Washington State? No concrete, definite signs that this is true.

What may be true - and just as important - is that Bradley and his core staff believe that if they don't prevail over Gore in Washington State Tuesday, his hopes for the nomination will be finished. They may be dead even if he wins Washington. But certainly if he can't win in Washington there will be serious questions - life-support questions - about his chances the rest of the way.

Bradley has the money to continue through "Super Tuesday" and beyond, all the way to the convention. He has the "way" but does he have the "will?" Bradley is, in general, a "fight to the finish, never give in" competitor.

But he's also smart.

If he has no chance, any extended "spite" campaign against Gore might damage, could even eliminate, any possibility that he might wind up as Gore's running-mate or get a high cabinet appointment should Gore win the presidency.

Bradley is widely believed to be planning a major "national" speech for Thursday after Washington votes. We should know more about all of this when - if - he gives that speech.

Topic 2: Gore's worries. Neither the vice president nor his staff want to talk about it. But there is a lot of talk in Republican circles that if Gore winds up the Democrat's choice they can and will damage him badly. The weapon of choice - "new revelations and revival of old ones" about what Gore knew and when he knew it - and who he knew - in the matter of alleged Chinese government contributions that wound up in the Clinton-Gore '96 campaign.

Of course, the Gore circle generally pooh-poohs this with phrases such as "the Republicans don't really have anything damaging about this," or "we haven't done anything some present Congressional Republicans and past Republican presidential fund-raisers haven't done," and "let 'em try it, we're ready." Maybe. But they haven't been battle tested by the likes of McCain and Bush on this front.

As for the Russi part of it, the Gore camp is banking on confusion and indifference.

Their position is that "our man has worked hard to keep Russia on the path to democracy and he's proud of it." Their basic argument is that Gore may have made some errors in judgment about people in the Russian government but "who hasn't?" They're confident "this isn't going to make a dime's worth of difference in the presidential campaign." Part of the latter is based on a belief that, in the end, foreign policy issues rarely make much difference in U.S. presidential races.

Topic 3: Ross Perot. He's back at the racetrack but exactly what and where he's headed nobody seems to know (probably not even the Texas billionaire himself).

This much we do know, whether Perot will acknowledge it openly or not: Perot does not want any Bush to be President. He just straight out doesn't like the Bushes and the feeling is mutual. Some of it has to do with business dealings going back a long way. Some of it has to do with politics, especially Perot's 1992 candidacy that all Bushes are convinced cost Bush the Elder his shot at re-election.

Perot is probably maneuvering to keep all of his political options open right now. If Bush loses the nomination, Perot might throw his support to McCain (would he try to extract a price?) He might leave his own "Reform Party" dormant, or something close to it, this year. Or he might try to get McCain on the ballot as the "Reform Party" candidate in addition to the Republican Party candidate.

If Bush gets nominated, it's a different world. Perot might try to run himself again, hoping to siphon off enough otherwise Republican votes to prevent Bush from winning the presidency, as the Bush folks are convinced he did in '92.

Or, he could try to get McCain to run as the Reform Party candidate in the belief that in a Gore versus Bush main event, McCain might actually have a chance to win it all as an independent.

You might think that it would be a stretch to believe that McCain would actually run as a third party candidate. And you might be right. But stranger things have happened in American politics and it would be a mistake to rule it out completely this early.

You may want to keep in mind that in some 1992 polls, Ross Perot was getting the support of about one-third of the public, in a three-way race between Bush, Clinton and Perot. That was before Perot pulled out of the race (in late summer) amid charges, among other things, that Bush had tried to ruin his daughter's wedding!

When Perot got back in for good in the autumn of 1992, he was far behind and never recovered. But he still wound up getting almost one-fifth of all votes cast in the general election.

Given McCain's trans-party success so far, it's hard to imagine the Perot wheels are not turning again this year. Who knows if he's tempted to run? Who knows if McCain would ever consider a third party run? With a stallion like McCain, a "Reform Party" candiday would not be so wild a dream.

That, as they say at the political track, is what makes horse races.

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