The first, obviously, is terrorism. Not the war in Iraq (give it up, Dean). The continuous direct threat of bodily harm to Americans by an organized international enemy -- that is the issue. We are vulnerable, and we know it. The blackout of 2003 was just a reminder.
Like most people, when I realized via car radio the extent of the blackout -- early reports said New York and Detroit were affected -- it sounded and felt like an attack. I called a few friends to find out who had power, and then, oddly, ran the bathtub full of water. Because it was getting pretty hot and who knows what other lifelines might fail? And because, somewhere in the back of my mind, I recalled that when faced with a nuclear attack, that is what you are supposed to do. Fill the bathtub with water.
Of course, for me the blackout turned out to be pretty uneventful. I was hot for a few hours, plus I could not get on the Internet. But the emotional echoes of 9/11 were pretty powerful. It could happen again. Which one of you presidential candidates is most likely to stop it? You get my vote, and those of millions of other Americans.
When the fear subsided, the anger started to rise. This is the second big issue: the energy crisis. The last time I went through an energy crisis, I was a young teen and it was all the Saudis' fault for cutting off the oil. Who is to blame this time?
Don't tell me a fly wanders into a transmitter in Cleveland, and suddenly all the air conditioners in New York City shut down. First California, then the Northeast -- now we hear reports that people in Phoenix are without gas because the one gas pipeline was shut down for safety reasons and may take a week or two to fix. All right guys, get your act together. I don't care how or who, but this is not some Third World country here, this is America. Get the lights running. Keep them running. Now. Got it?
Because, as Gray Davis can tell you, if you don't, a political tidal wave is coming your way.
The third dominating issue is gay marriage. The political massagers are desperately trying to find the most favorable language for framing the gay marriage question (favorable to gay marriage, I mean). They seem to have settled on asking Americans whether or not they want to "ban gay marriage." A recent Associated Press poll found that 52 percent of Americans support a law banning gay marriage. However, in the same poll, 53 percent oppose civil unions for gays. Taken at face value, this would mean Americans are actually more in favor of gay marriage than domestic partnership benefits for gays.
But what it really represents is a confusing question. Do we want to impose new legal restrictions on homosexuality? Fifty-two percent of Americans say yes. Don't fool yourself, guys -- the proportion who oppose changing the definition of marriage is much, much higher.
How will this play out politically? Every single one of the Democratic presidential candidates is already on record supporting gay civil unions, which the majority of Americans oppose. No Democrat looks remotely credible, at this point, as an alternative to President Bush on terrorism.
Which leaves the energy crisis, plus the economic mess that is generated when the generators fail. The Dems had better hope President Bush and the GOP Congress blow it big time.
For anyone who looks, the outline of the 2004 presidential campaign is suddenly clear. There are three, and exactly three, issues that will dominate.