In textbooks and theory books, there is an immutable order and logic to political races in presidential election years: A strong performance by the national ticket will sweep a party's gubernatorial or Senate candidate into office.
On the ground it's a different story, at least this year. It isn't only that both George W. Bush and Al Gore are campaigning in Eisenhower jackets (no coattails). It's also that both may be depending on the coattails of senatorial and gubernatorial candidates whose own campaigns may, in a stunning reversal of convention, determine the presidential winner in a close election.
This unusual phenomenon is apparent in at least three races in regions as different as the Northeast, Southeast and Midwest. The richest example is here, in Missouri, a classic industrial-belt battleground with 11 electoral votes.
This is a true swing state; in every election but one since 1900, Missouri has sided with the winning presidential candidate. (The exception was 1956, when Missouri went for Adlai Stevenson while the country went for Dwight D. Eisenhower.) But this year it is the Senate race that may affect the presidential race, not the other way around.
That's because the Senate race in Missouri involves more bitterness and contention than any other race anywhere, including the struggle between Gore and Bush. The Missouri maulers - both of whom served two terms in the governor's office in Jefferson City - have been feuding for a decade.
On one side is Sen. John Ashcroft, a Republican who is the darling of religious conservatives and has won five statewide elections. On the other is Mel Carnahan, a Democratic governor who won both his terms by large margins. It is impossible to turn on the TV here without being confronted by the men's antagonism for each other.
Just as the party that wins the Senate race will probably take Missouri's electoral votes in the presidential race, the party that wins the gubernatorial race in New Hampshire may take the Granite State's four electoral votes.
In that contest, Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen is running for her third two-year term in Concord. Bill Clinton took New Hampshire in 1992 and 1996, but now both parties regard the state as highly competitive.
If Shaheen runs weaker in 2000 than she did in 1998, or if she loses to former Sen. Gordon Humphrey, Bush could claim the state, which was safely Republican for every election between 1948 and 1988 with the exception of the Lyndon Johnson landslide of 1964.
The major issue in the state is whether the state, long a redoubt of anti-tax sentiment, should have an income tax, a notion opposed by both Shaheen and Humphrey. But the combined number of votes won by two pro-income tax candidates in last week's primary election was about the same as the number of votes won by both Shaheen and Humphrey. Thus the two are in the unusual and uncomfortable position of knowing their destinies - and control of the state in the presidential election - will be determined by people who oppose the gubernatorial nominees on the principal issue facing the state.
The third state where the coattails are reversed is Georgia, which has split its support evenly among the two parties since 1956 and in more recent years, voted for Clinton once (1992) but not the second time (1996). The caprices of life and politics have suddenly made the state, once regarded as safely Republican in the 2000 election, a battleground.
The death of Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell July 18 transformed Georgia politics - and prompted the Democrats to rewrite their general election strategy. A popular former Democratic governor, Zell Miller, was appointed to fill Coverdell's seat until the November election. Democrats believe that Miller's margin of victory over former Republican Sen. Mack Mattingly will be so large that Gore, from the neighboring state of Tennessee, now has a chance to win Georgia's 13 electoral votes.
And so suddenly discussions about the death penalty in Missouri, income taxes in New Hampshire and the state budget in Georgia have national force. Suddenly all politics, even presidential politics, is local again.