WASHINGTON — Old American traditions will be tested severely in the November showdown between Al Gore and George W. Bush.

One is that in time of soaring prosperity, voters do not defeat the presidential candidate of the party in power. If that tradition prevails in November, Gore will win.

But there also is another, more recent custom that could help Bush and the Republicans. That one favors a return to the White House of the party that has been out of power for a while.

The first example occurred in 1980 when Jimmy Carter, seeking a second term, presided over an economy in which inflation and joblessness were at double digit levels and America was seemingly powerless in the face of the capture and year-long imprisonment of American hostages in Iran.

That situation was exactly right for an engaging personality like Ronald Reagan to convince voters that things would be better under his conservative leadership and that America once more would be that "shining city on the hill." He easily defeated Carter.

Reagan occupied the White House for eight years and, at the end of that time, public opinion polls indicated that a Democrat probably would succeed him.

But in1988 Vice President George Bush won the GOP nomination and the presidency.

The Democrats had nominated Michael Dukakis, who seemed not to know why he wanted to be president or how to cope with the mud that Bush threw at him.

In some earlier elections, the tradition that voters seek change every eight years prevailed. Although Dwight D. Eisenhower was an immensely popular president, Democrat John F. Kennedy was able in 1960 to squeak by his vice president, Richard Nixon, in the battle for the White House.

Eight years after that, Nixon took advantage of the difficulties confronted by Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy's successor, and finally won the presidency.

But when Nixon was forced to resign in 1973 because of Watergate and was succeeded by Gerald Ford, the Republicans knew they were in trouble. Ford was a good man, but in the election of 1976 Carter defeated him.

Carter's victory overrode yet another tradition: The taller candidate for president tends to win. Ford stood much taller than Carter, but few voters realized it.

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But in 1980, Reagan made certain that voters would see his height advantage over Carter in their debate. In violation of rules that had been agreed on, Reagan walked across the stage and shook hands with Carter. That action appeared to be a genial gesture, but with his knowledge of theatrics, Reagan must have understood the advantage he would gain when voters saw him towering over Carter.

The major tradition to be tested this year centers around the religion of the Democratic vice presidential nominee and whether anti-Semitism will be a factor in the vote. The American people are being asked to decide whether they want to place a Jewish senator from Connecticut, Joseph Lieberman, just one heartbeat away from the presidency.

That, of course, is not the only issue in this year's election. But it became an unexpected challenge to Gore when he selected Lieberman as his vice presidential running mate last week.

Presidential contenders often declare that they just want to discuss the issues. But the truth is that elections are often determined in part by such other matters as personality, personal appearance, religion, the desire for change, the health of the economy, the status of our national defense — and even the height of the nominees.

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