George W. Bush, son of former president George Bush and governor of Texas since 1995, characterized himself as a “compassionate conservative,” an all-purpose mantra meant to convey a kinder, gentler Republican. His running mate, former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, added a seasoned Washington résumé to a ticket sometimes faulted for its lack of political experience and gravitas. Al Gore, vice president under Bill Clinton and a former congressman and senator (D-Tenn.), chose Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) as his running mate in an effort to rid himself of the Clinton albatross (Lieberman was perhaps the most outspoken Democrat critic of the Lewinsky affair). Gore, perceived as strong on character but weak on inspirational leadership, struggled throughout the campaign with his relationship to his tarnished yet charismatic mentor, whose job approval ratings remained high (60%) up to the election. Significant third-party candidates included Patrick Buchanan (Reform) and Ralph Nader (Green)—the latter's undiluted liberal message threatened to siphon off votes from Gore.
The Senate races (34 seats were at stake: 19 Republican and 15 Democrat) resulted in a 50–50 split between Republicans and Democrats. In the House, where all seats were up, Republicans maintained a narrow lead (221 Republicans, 212 Democrats, two Independents). Eleven governorships were also up for grabs.