BILL CLINTON may have paved the way for a Republican revolution. And the GOP may have just the candidate to take advantage of the opening he created.
The Democrats' problem is George W. Bush, governor of Texas and a man whose political acumen and electability is increasingly evident. Mr. Bush put on a burst of breathtaking confidence last week, upbraiding his party's majority in Congress for dis-respecting government and fostering a dour image of life in these United States.
Running against Washington and the Congress is a somewhat tired approach to federal elections, but it's usually an effective one.
In this case, Mr. Bush gives it a new turn by arguing that government can be a problem solver for people if run by a "compassionate conservative," the label he's given to his own governing philosophy.
Mr. Bush clearly sees his own primary as finished business.
He behaves as if the wealthy publisher, Steve Forbes, and the incendiary conservative, Pat Buchanan, are mere annoyances.
He wants Mr. Buchanan to resist the temptation to become a Reform party candidate, fearing that he would take away conservative votes a Bush candidacy needs in the general election. Mr. Forbes goes on spending large amounts of his personal fortune to stay in the race.
But he and Mr. Buchanan seem almost like Republican sideshows, ego trips or indulgences of agendas which may have less purchase on the voters' attention.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona offers himself as a more serious candidate but he, too, stands far back of Governor Bush. To become a real threat, Mr. McCain needs to become a multi-dimensional candidate.
He's known now for his estimable Vietnam war record, his straight-talking personal appeal and a single issue: campaign finance reform. Ironically, he may need to raise more money to become viable.
Governor's Bush's lead in fund raising and his wide advantages in the opinion polls allow him to adopt the position of presumptive nominee. He is essentially daring the field in both parties to pose a realistic challenge.
Mr. Bush's reproach of the Republican-led Congress also suggests that his campaign believes most Americans are anxious for leadership in Washington that eschews extremes -- of ideological as well as personal behavior.
Mr. Bush is already on a virtual first-name basis with voters; many know him simply as George W. He comes to his head-of-the-pack status with a record of boldness; in Texas, he took on and defeated popular Democratic incumbent Ann Richards by guessing that he could compete with her among African-American and Latino voters.
It will be a challenge to take that success on the road, because the Democrats have had a stranglehold on African-American voters since the days of Franklin Roosevelt. No wonder, then, that he attacked his party's majority in Congress for attempting to defer tax credits for the working poor.
This willingness to step beyond the usual caution of campaigns bespeaks confidence, focus and a campaign that is poised to take advantage of opportunity.
Congressional Republicans were not his ultimate target. His eventual opponent and the Democrats were.
Of course, Mr. Bush could falter; it's only October and there will be plenty of opportunities for missteps. More important, he still must convince people to vote against the Democrats -- who will claim credit for the nation's prosperity.
But George W. knows how to play. The polls and the money chase make him the man to beat.