So who's the "federalism-friendly" presidential candidate--Al Gore or George W. Bush?

Maybe that sounds like an easy question. After all, Bush is a two- term governor himself. He would bring to the Oval Office the perspective of six years in the capitol of America's second-most populous state. Al Gore's political career, on the other hand, has been entirely Potomac-based. Case closed? Not so fast.

Recent history shows that governors tend to surprise their devolutionist friends once they move into the West Wing. Jimmy Carter ended the decades-long trend of increasing federal aid to state and local governments. Ronald Reagan accelerated Carter's budget cuts and sought to smother some Great Society programs. Bill Clinton embraced, if reluctantly, the welfare reform that placed more burden on states and cities. Bush, of course, insists there will be no such surprises from him. His theme seems to be, "I've served as governor. I know what the states can do. Get the feds out of the way and they'll show even more." Still, any student of modern politics would be well advised to reserve judgment.

Gore, meanwhile, is taking a different tack, promising more help rather than more autonomy. His signature education proposal, for example, promises federal preschool funding for kids everywhere. He celebrates the Clinton administration's investment in brownfields redevelopment and toxic waste cleanup. His rhetoric emphasizes all the good things the federal government has accomplished, and the things it will do once he is in power.

Not that either candidate is offering to throw open the federal treasury to state and local governments. Both of them continue to talk about cutting taxes, saving Social Security, and paying off the national debt. In fact, given the projections of a $2 trillion federal surplus, the absence of any big proposal for pumping large infusions of cash into intergovernmental programs is a sign of just how far the nation as a whole has moved away from Great Society sensibilities.

More than in any recent campaign, both camps are flying the flags of flexibility and choice. Bush argues for more educational choice for parents, higher learning standards, leeway for local schools to employ in meeting them, rewards for schools that perform well, and "blowing the whistle" on poorly performing schools. Bush would consolidate the $14 billion Elementary and Secondary Education Act's 60 programs into five broad categories. In exchange for the flexibility, the states would have to set up tough performance systems.

Gore hits many of the same themes, but with less enthusiasm for parental choice and more emphasis on money to fund the incentives. He would provide bonuses for high-performing states and offer rewards to teachers who make the most progress with disadvantaged children.

So which candidate is more federalism-friendly? That depends on whether your taste runs more to markets (and makes you a Bush fan) or more to a role for government in leveling the playing field and priming the budget pump (which pushes you toward the Gore camp).

In practice, though, the differences are subtle. They are differences more of tone than of rigid ideology. A tour through each candidate's Web site in search of federalism issues reveals no profound disagreements. Moreover, the real work of moving any federalism package through Congress would likely file down any sharp edges that did separate the two candidates on these subjects.

The truth is, the candidates' speeches to date leave few real clues about how either would behave on the most important devolution issues facing the country. Can Washington rethink the federal-state partnership to deal effectively with the next generation of environmental issues? Will a federal government that has just backed away from welfare entitlements devise and enforce tough standards on the states in other areas of public policy? And what kind of Supreme Court justices would each man appoint: aggressive nationalizers, or jurists with a healthy respect for state and local rights? Given the Court's steady recrafting of federalism over the past few years, that last question might well prove to be the most important of all. But there will be no clear answer to it until the new president is in office and the first court vacancies occur.

And underlying all these questions is another one: Will the next administration, regardless of who runs it, be able to regain the federal leverage over domestic policy that has been lost over the past decade?

The feds have clearly surrendered the high ground--in the past few years, state legislatures have reinvented health care policy and deregulated whole segments of the electric-power industry with Congress scarcely even participating. The new president faces a genuine challenge in rebuilding the intergovernmental partnership for the years to come. How he will do that--whoever he happens to be--is anything but clear.