WASHINGTON — This is supposed to be a big election, but it has given every sign in recent weeks of becoming a small one. As a result, the public and the media are showing signs of exhaustion with what had once been an exhilarating contest.

In big elections, voters know how much is at stake. They focus on central problems, not manufactured issues or the personal foibles of candidates. In big elections, such as those of 1968, 1980 and 1992, voters realize they are deciding whether to move the country in a new direction.

In small elections, by contrast, voters sense that the outcome is unlikely to make much difference, though they (and the media) can be wrong about this.

The 2000 campaign was an excellent example of what happens when an election seems inconsequential. Shrewdly, George W. Bush knew that the country was, on the whole, satisfied with the results of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Bush presented himself as being far more moderate than he actually was and even occasionally posed as the centrist inheritor of the positive aspects of Clinton’s legacy.

This moved attention toward Al Gore’s sighs in the first presidential debate and his alleged tendency to exaggerate. Although Bush doesn’t drink, he was cast as the guy with whom you would want to have a beer, and that was made to seem so important at the time.

Before the battle for Pennsylvania, the 2008 presidential contest looked as big as elections get. The country’s deep disillusionment with Bush, akin to the disillusionment with Jimmy Carter in 1980, portends a wish by voters to move in a different direction, albeit one quite unlike the path chosen 28 years ago. The issues discussed in debates and on the stump were the important ones: an Iraq war in which victory is elusive, an economy falling into disarray, a health care system failing employees and employers alike.

No one benefited more than Barack Obama from this sense of historic moment. Change, not experience, was the order of the day. Sweep, not a mastery of detail, was the virtue most valued in campaign oratory. A clean break with the past, not merely a return to better days, was the promise most prized.

Then something happened. Specifically, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. And he keeps happening, holding tightly to a spotlight that was turned his way by a certain politician whom the preacher dismisses for being a politician. First came his Friday appearance on PBS with Bill Moyers, then his NAACP address in Detroit on Sunday, and his National Press Club speech in Washington on Monday.

Obama, once seen as a prophet, is now merely a human being capable of performing indifferently in debate and of making statements about bitter voters that made some voters bitter.

All this has helped Hillary Clinton in the short run, and she has used her opening well. Her old flaws look like virtues: She is battle-tested, not merely a figure from the past; she is the candidate who has been vetted, not someone who has been run through the media mill; she is the fighter, not the politician who will do anything to win. And she is, suddenly, a right-wing hero, not the victim of a vast right-wing conspiracy.

Yes, the conservative commentariat has turned her way, or at least against Obama. Of course, these are temporary conversions of convenience. But there is a lesson in the eagerness to spur on the Democratic fight in its current form, and it’s about more than just enjoying watching Clinton and Obama eviscerate each other.

The smaller this election looks, the easier it will be for the Republicans to run campaigns such as those they orchestrated in 2000 and 1988 in which the particular flaws of candidates take on an exaggerated importance. The significance of the choice that the voters are making for the country’s future recedes. Were Hillary Clinton to win the nomination, she, no less than Obama, would need this to be a big election. This is something Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton all understood about the contests in which they prevailed.

Contrary to those who are cynical about democracy, voters themselves are rarely manipulated into thinking that big elections are actually small ones. But the candidates and the media, with some help from Jeremiah Wright, are doing all they can to run this election through an Incredible Shrinking Machine. Obama and Clinton should not make it harder for Americans to have the election they want.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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