WASHINGTON President Bush's lack of a Republican challenger and the expected early sorting out of a Democratic foe points to a protracted general election campaign, challenging both parties to find creative ways to hold voters' attention.
In the process, tens of millions of dollars will be spent.
Americans in the most contested states should brace for what could be a record onslaught of television ads. Already, they are bombarding television screens in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, sites of early Democratic primary contests.
It could be a good year for digital video recorders that let viewers skip commercials.
Bush raised $130.8 million last year and was headed toward collecting up to $200 million for the primary season, twice what he spent in 2000.
The contest could shift quickly even by mid-February or early March to full general-election footing, months before the parties' nominating conventions in August and September.
If the current Democratic front-runner, Howard Dean, is the nominee, he will bring a formidable bankroll. The former Vermont governor raised about $40 million last year and, like Bush, is skipping public financing for his primary campaign, freeing himself from spending limits that come with it.
The only catch is that all this money must be spent in the primary season, before the general election campaign formally begins after the conventions. It is a use-it or lose-it proposition.
Many millions more on political ads will be spent by groups funded by corporate and union donations and by wealthy individuals such as billionaire businessman George Soros. He has pledged at least $10 million to a Democratic-leaning get-out-the-vote group.
''You never can have too much money in politics,'' said GOP consultant Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole's 1996 campaign against President Clinton. Dole nailed the GOP nomination by March, then found himself short on cash with months to go against a well-financed incumbent in a recovering economy.
Some political scholars suggest there are practical limits to political spending particularly on broadcast ads.
''There is a finite amount of quality time for purchase,'' said Kathleen Jamieson, the dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. ''We came very close in 2000 to having every available purchase spot that was desirable grabbed up by the candidates.''
''Beyond some point, you're purchasing worthless time,'' she said.
People in strongly Republican or strongly Democratic states are unlikely to be exposed to the torrent of political ads because both sides will spend where it counts the most.
But that does not mean a complete reprieve.
Cable outlets are accepting more political advertising. And electronic political ads are increasingly appearing on Web sites as pop-ups and banners.
Bush's re-election campaign is waiting on airing its commercials so long as Democrats are out there beating on each other. For now, the focus is on party building and other activities.
''Our operating assumption always has been that this could very well be as close as the election in 2000. And with that, we needed to organize the most energetic grass-roots campaign ever fielded,'' said Terry Holt, a Bush-Cheney campaign spokesperson.
Bush essentially has shifted into general-election mode. He is reaching beyond the party's conservative base for moderate swing voters a luxury he did not have in early 2000 when he had to run to the right of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Spending too much time courting moderate voters could anger some conservatives, as Bush did with his immigration proposal last week. Still, GOP strategists do not expect Bush to lose conservatives' support.
Bush also is expected to press for a range of new domestic initiatives, perhaps including individual tax-free retirement and savings accounts, a first step toward Social Security overhaul.
While new election-year legislative fights might not thrill battle-weary Republican congressional leaders, it gives Bush a forum to demonstrate to voters that he remains engaged, Bush advisers suggest.
On the Democratic side, the nominee-designate will likely find it harder than Bush to command attention during the long lull in activities before the party conventions, even with heavy advertising. First, the candidate will have to repair the split in the party a considerable task if Dean is the nominee and move to the center.
Will nearly nonstop campaigning and the spending of record amounts numb voters well ahead of Election Day in November?
Not necessarily, said Ken Mayer, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. ''People who are paying attention are paying attention, and those who aren't have other things that occupy their time,'' he said.
Anyway, Mayer added, ''This presidential election has been going on for a year and a half already.''
Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.
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