Fast forward to January 20, 2001. The steps of the U.S. Capitol. The president-elect raises his hand to take the oath of office. Forming the backdrop to the scene: a who's who of the best and brightest of the Republican party, now preparing to sit as the most illustrious cabinet in a generation; the vice president-elect, whose choice unified and galvanized the party; and, of course, the 41st president of the United States, looking on with paternal pride as the fateful words mark the start of the administration of the 43rd: "I, George W. Bush, do solemnly swear . . ."

Pause button, please. Agreeable as it no doubt is for Republicans to fantasize about how sweet will be their victory in 2000, history is bereft of a fast-forward button. Politics unfolds day by day, often slowly and painfully, always full of surprises. George W. has not even won the GOP nomination yet, much less the general election. Those currently focused on the fruits of his triumph are way ahead of themselves.

The source of the GOP's current rich fantasy life is one overwhelming and remarkably persistent fact: George W. Bush leads Vice President Al Gore by double digits in every poll taken so far. The closest one, by John Zogby, has Bush 11 points ahead. The ABC News/Washington Post poll puts Bush's lead at 13. CNN/Gallup/USA Today says 16. Fox News/Opinion Dynamics finds Bush favored over Gore by a crushing 58-32.

Republicans want a winner. They also think they need a winner, that to lose the White House yet again would be an unmitigated disaster for the country and the party. And in George W. Bush, the wildly popular two-term governor of Texas, scion of GOP aristocracy, self-styled compassionate conservative, habla Espanol, they smell a winner. So they have been flocking by the score to Austin, in an unprecedented effort to establish Bush as a consensus candidate more than a year before the nominating convention.

They may be right about Bush. They are not wrong about the polls. Nor is there any polling to support the proposition that there is a better, more "electable" GOP candidate out there, let alone a poll that reveals the identity of such a one. But it's also true that there's nothing inevitable or automatic about a George W. victory. For purposes of argument, let's grant him the nomination (itself a dubious exercise in fast-forwarding, especially considering that Bush has no experience running nationally). It's worth pausing to speculate about what a general-election matchup between Bush and Gore might look like.

Let us begin with the George W.-favoring proposition that vice presidents face unique difficulties in ascending to the Oval Office by virtue of the baggage they acquire in the No. 2 role. Recall one element of the hoopla of George Bush pere's elevation: the first sitting vice president to be elected president since Martin van Buren in 1836! Does not the 150-year interval bode ill for Gore's prospects?

No, in fact, it does not. Only four sitting vice presidents have ever run for president in a general election. Martin and George won. Hubert Humphrey lost in 1968 -- by 500,000 votes out of 73 million cast. This was at a time of maximal turmoil over Vietnam, and Humphrey was heir to a failed president who had decided not to attempt a reelection bid. It seems a bit of a stretch to infer a general curse from that loss and from Richard Nixon's even narrower loss to JFK in 1960 (120,000 votes out of 68 million cast).

Now, one might say, many were the veeps who eyed the office but didn't make it to November for one reason or another. This is true. Our scenario simply assumes Gore gets the nomination. But does anyone really think that this is an unlikely outcome -- that the Bill Bradley challenge will bump Gore out of the way? No, the most likely course is that Al Gore, having served eight years as vice president, will be the nominee of a united Democratic party, his people already in place in key positions in the administration of a president who long ago indicated his commitment to Gore as successor. That doesn't make Gore weak; it makes him formidable.

In addition, for all the scandals swirling around the Clinton White House, Gore has at his disposal a positive message of some power. While "the Clinton-Gore years" sounds to Republicans like a phrase that should discredit Gore, it sounds rather different to Gore and his Democrats. Republicans will insist until the end of time that neither Clinton nor Gore deserves much credit, but we are looking back on eight fat years of prosperity and peace, and everybody knows it. There's a record for Gore to run on.

Obviously, there is the possibility of an economic downturn or foreign calamity between now and the election. Either eventuality would strengthen any challenger to Gore. But in the absence of such trouble, we can surely expect Gore to note that when the Clinton-Gore team took over from another George Bush, the unemployment rate was 7.3 percent. Now it's 4.2 percent, and the U.S. economy has created some 25 million jobs in the Clinton-Gore years. Interest rates for home mortgages were over 8 percent; now they're under 7. The federal budget deficit was more than $ 250 billion; now there's a $ 100 billion surplus. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was under 3,300; now it's over 10,000. And the crime rate and welfare rolls have been halved. Gore will promise more of the same and sharply attack any and all "risky schemes" that might threaten the good times.

But if Gore bids to claim credit here, will he not also have to answer for the sins of his patron? Are people not, in one way or another, regardless of whether they are willing to say so, sick or at least tired of Bill Clinton? Will Americans not insist on a shower and a trip to the dry cleaners?

Well, Republicans certainly feel that way. But they should by now have become acquainted with the perils of extrapolating the views of the American people from their own feelings. In the first place, there is not much evidence that Americans take such a dim view of Bill Clinton's presidency. Admittedly, it would take a weirdo to admire him for his conduct with Monica Lewinsky. Republicans generally see in this scandalous behavior evidence of a fundamentally corrupt character.

But it is evident from polling data that Americans in general have a more complex (incoherent? nuanced?) view of Clinton. And while it is true that his job approval rating has slipped from the heights he once commanded, it is hardly clear that he is now on an irreversible downward slide. Ronald Reagan bounced back from the depths of the Iran-contra scandal in 1987, arriving on Election Day 1988 at a job approval rating of about 55 percent. George Bush then won the election with 54 percent of the vote. This does not seem coincidental; nor does a similar job approval rating for Clinton on Election Day 2000 seem beyond his reach.

But what of Gore? Is it not the case that what has failed to harm Clinton has nonetheless harmed Gore? His shakedown of Buddhist nuns, "no controlling legal authority," his invention of the Internet, his speech explicating our national motto, "out of one, many." What are we to make of the fact that he trails not only George W. Bush but also Elizabeth Dole? Surely this reflects a negative judgment of the sitting veep by voters.

Or does it? It is abundantly clear that Gore lacks Clinton's charisma and Clinton's way with a chin quiver. Polls likewise show no great outpouring of personal affection for the vice president. But neither do they show vast stores of antipathy. It is not as if any potential GOP candidate trounces Gore in the polls. The same Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll from mid-April showing George W. with a 26 point lead over Gore among registered voters shows Gore with a 16 point lead over Lamar Alexander and a 22 point lead over Pat Buchanan. An April CNN/USA Today poll shows Gore leading Sen. John McCain by 7 points, and an April NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows him ahead of Dan Quayle by 23 points.

Disfavor toward Gore is relative, not absolute. Perhaps Americans have decided they know enough about Quayle and Buchanan to favor Gore. But it's worth asking how much Americans really know about George W. or Elizabeth Dole. Clearly, Americans have taken a liking to them. Clearly, they are politically viable and have genuine credentials, especially the Texas governor. But is their standing in the polls a result of Americans' understanding of who they are and what they stand for, or is it more attributable to the fact that they come from two of the best-known GOP brand names in American politics? If George Herbert Walker Bush is Coke, maybe George W. is a new Coca-Cola product. Sure, people want to take a sip. Diet Coke was a big hit. New Coke, however, was not.

By itself, all of the above ought to be more than sufficient to dispel the notion that George W. Bush can coast from here to the White House. He is barely at the beginning of an arduous and perilous journey, and the outcome is by no means foreordained. And oh yes, there's one more thing, something many Republicans don't like to think about because they find the notion distasteful: Al Gore is going to run a political campaign against George W. Bush.

Let's see if this reminds us of anything: A sitting two-term vice president is trailing in the polls in high double-digits behind a popular get-things-done governor from an important state, a governor who has tried to carve a political niche for himself apart from the dominant ideology of his party. Patton read Rommel's book on tank warfare before beating Rommel at El Alamein. It seems likely that for their coming fight again George W. Bush, Gore strategists will be taking a close look at how George Herbert Walker Bush reversed a 17-point deficit in the polls and crushed Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts in 1988.

The parallels between the two situations are really quite striking. Bush pere had an image problem as a "lap dog," stuck in the shadows, struggling to emerge. Gore is the cardboard cutout placed slightly behind Bill Clinton and to his left. Bush was haltingly inarticulate. Gore is wooden. How much did Bush know about Iran-contra? How much did Gore know about Chinese spying?

Michael Dukakis, the governor of liberal Massachusetts, home of the Kennedys, was a Democrat with a difference, one for whom the central political qualification was "competence," not ideology. George W. Bush of conservative Texas, home of Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, is a "compassionate conservative," some-one who can reach out beyond the party's narrow bounds. Michael Dukakis, a staunch death-penalty opponent, had a hard time dealing with a hypothetical debate question about the rape and murder of his wife. George W. Bush is pro-life; he just doesn't like to talk about it.

One could go on. And assuredly, there are important differences between the two situation. But the equivalent of Lee Atwater's successful effort on behalf of Vice President Bush to paint Dukakis as an out-of-the-mainstream liberal is not hard to imagine as the Gore campaign strategy.

It begins with an effort, already well under way, to get as many Republicans as possible to come forward to declare that there is something seriously wrong with certain other Republicans. Paul Begala has an interesting "character test" for the GOP, especially George W.: "Anyone who wants to be taken seriously by the mainstream must first show where he or she disagrees with the troglodyte bosses of the radical right. It's time someone took on the flat-earth Republicans, and the presidential primaries in 2000 are just the place to do it." Now, it's one thing when Begala rails against "troglodyte bosses" and "flat-earth Republicans." It's what you expect from him. Sure, he believes it, but it's also what he's supposed to say.

If Republicans do the railing, on the other hand, it's news; the charge acquires greater legitimacy. Michael Dukakis found it either imprudent or unseemly, probably both, to identify himself as a liberal; he preferred to change the subject and talk about "competence." The act of changing the subject lent credence from the Democratic side to a proposition espoused by the Republicans and highly useful to them: There is something about liberals that's wrong and out of whack with America.

The next move is jiu-jitsu. The Gore campaign portrays George W. Bush, compassionate conservative -- by implication, unlike certain other, less savory conservatives, from whom even Republicans distance themselves -- as a tool of those selfsame unsavory characters, as a crypto-right-winger who's trying to conceal it from voters because he knows that if they find out, he's finished. DeLay and Armey signed up awfully early, didn't they? Who's pulling the strings here? And what about that extreme GOP litmus test, a ban on abortion? Is Bush against that in principle? And what about that NRA-inspired and funded Texas law encouraging everybody to carry a concealed handgun? Didn't Bush sign that law?

In 1988, Lee Atwater insisted that George Bush attack Dukakis early, often, and savagely as an unreconstructed and unrepentant liberal. The campaign highlighted furloughs for convicted murderers and Dukakis's veto of legislation requiring teachers to lead school kids in the Pledge of Allegiance. As Dukakis pollster Tubby Harrison wrote in a June 9, 1988, memo, "If Bush is able convincingly to paint MSD as a liberal . . . he can reduce the distance between himself and the voters, thereby turning the tables on us." It will be the task of the Gore campaign to persuade voters that notwithstanding George W.'s carefully buffed image, he is in fact a captive of the extreme right wing of the Republican party.

There will be other elements to the Gore strategy, of course. One of these is already in play, courtesy of Democratic National Committee chairman Roy Romer. The Los Angeles Times reported on Memorial Day that Romer requested an interview with the paper. He used it to attack Bush. The paper quoted Romer: "He wouldn't be in this race if his name were not Bush. . . . The real question is having the name George W. Bush isn't going to get you there; it is do you have the leadership, the experience, the issues. . . . Somebody who has just been governor for five years, you have to ask the tough questions: Is this the kind of experience that qualifies you to run and occupy the presidency and lead?"

Now, the fact that Romer chose to lead with the issue of experience this early, rather than with "extremism," may be designed to distract the Bush campaign from the far more vicious attack that will be forthcoming. The Dukakis team thought that Vice President Bush would mainly run on his experience in high places, not on the destruction of Dukakis and his record. As Dukakis ad man Mal MacDougall told a Boston Globe reporter in October 1988, "I guess they were caught off guard. A lot of people in the Dukakis campaign thought the Republicans would run a more positive campaign and make Bush into a states-man."

Still, experience is, under the right circumstances, a serious issue. Moreover, Republicans have been saying for some time now that foreign policy might well reemerge as an issue in 2000 after a period of quiet. If it does, but remains prospective rather than recriminatory -- in the absence, that is, of a crisis that discredits Clinton-Gore, and in the wake of success rather than failure in Kosovo -- then we have a vice president with eight years' experience in foreign affairs, not counting the Senate, against yet another plucky governor.

It does not necessarily follow from these observations that George W. Bush would be a bad candidate in 2000 or is the wrong candidate for Republicans if they want to win in 2000. Clearly, Bush's strengths are estimable. But so are those of his most likely opponent. And Republicans have a tendency to be surprised by their opponents' attacks. They tend to think such attacks are unfair -- demagoguery of the sheerest sort. (They also tend to think that when they are required to speak ill of their opposition, they are bastions of probity and fairness, never resorting to such tactics themselves, but merely educating the public to the truth about important matters.)

Well, whether Al Gore's attacks on George W. Bush are fair or not, and whether George W. is ready or not, they are coming. That's politics. And whatever War Room-like documentary gets made about the 2000 campaign, it is not going to be called Smooth Sailing: George W. Bush's White House Journey.

Tod Lindberg is editor of Policy Review.