GOP aspirants fight Bush vagueness with specificity

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Publisher Steve Forbes proposes "one strike and you're out," no parole for violent felons.

Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander wants to triple the child tax deduction to $8,000. And former Vice President Dan Quayle proposes a 30 percent across-the-board income tax cut.

Visit almost any of the Republican presidential candidates' Web sites, and you'll find rafts of proposals - multipart plans for strengthening the American family, detailed outlines to fix Social Security, treatises on strengthening American defense.

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Notably absent from this hit parade of policy wonkery is the campaign of Texas Gov. George W. Bush. "There will come a time for formal speeches and 10-point plans," the Republican front-runner states bluntly in his standard stump address.

As Governor Bush revels in his record-breaking fund-raising totals - an astounding $36 million in just six months - and commanding lead in polls for the GOP nomination, his rivals can only scratch their heads and sigh in frustration.

The only way out of this political box, most have concluded, is to outdo Bush on substance and be ready to leap into the void should the bloom come off Bush's Texas rose.

The "also runnings" - the 11 Republicans trailing the Bush juggernaut - need to establish in the public mind that they're serious, credible, potential presidents, says Whit Ayres, an Atlanta-based GOP consultant.

"One way to do that is to deliver thoughtful, reflective speeches and papers on critical issues of the day," says Mr. Ayres, who is unaffiliated with any presidential candidate. "That alone is far from enough to overtake the kind of lead that George W. has, but should he stumble it will put them in a position to be looked at seriously."

Some strategists working for Bush's GOP challengers profess confidence that Bush will have to get more specific in coming months, and that in debates and press conferences, his lack of experience in many national and international issues will show. Bush's recent confusion between Slovenia and Slovakia is but one example seized upon by a rival campaign official.

Another reason to come forward with specifics now, before the public has begun to focus, is to fire up the party faithful.

"You're playing the activist game," says Juleanna Glover Weiss, a spokeswoman for the Forbes campaign. "We're going for the people who are paying very close attention, the conservative news junkies."

In the early primary states, she says, Forbes's speeches have been getting good play in local media, which can be more influential than national publications such as the New York Times.

Forbes also has the added dimension of independent wealth, which will allow him to stay in the campaign for the long haul. His recent TV ad campaign in early primary states didn't do much for his poll numbers there, but it did show him to be a serious contender for the nomination - one willing, as he did in the 1996 campaign, to spend his own money.

Political analyst Bill Schneider surmises that Forbes's ads may have driven some of the large giving to the Bush campaign, as GOP activists work to make sure the Texas governor can match Forbes dollar for dollar. That, in turn, may have the effect of drying up the fund-raising potential of other GOP candidates.

One candidate who appears to be struggling to maintain viability is Mr. Alexander; he polls in low single digits and has raised only $2 million so far. But he soldiers on, delivering speeches on how government policies can help parents raise their children.

The challenge, says Brian Kennedy, Alexander's national political director, is to get the media to pay attention to the ideas that will ultimately sway voters. For now, he says, the problem is that the media - and the Republican Party establishment - are focused on polls, fund-raising, and endorsements. But these are not the factors that sway votes.

Mr. Kennedy notes that at this point four years ago, GOP candidate Bob Dole had the most money, the most endorsements, and was beating Bill Clinton in the polls. But he still faced a tough fight in the Iowa caucuses and came in second in the New Hampshire primary.

Ultimately, Mr. Dole was able to recover and win the nomination. But the point is that it was a competitive race, Kennedy says. "What the media are suggesting now is that, based on these measures, it's not even a competitive race."

Roderick Hart, an expert on political communication at the University of Texas at Austin, says the specificity of the candidates' arguments is not the problem.

"To me, it's the negativity," he says. "Almost all of them have as a premise, the world or the economy or the family is in dire straits. I'm the guy that you need to fix things up." At heart, he says, "I don't think most of them are very good at being candidates."

What set apart Presidents Clinton and Reagan and other successful politicians from the pack was their unbridled optimism about the future of the nation. And with the economy doing so well now, the public is not in a mood to put dark clouds in their silver lining.

"By and large," says Professor Hart, "it seems the one thing that's always appropriate [for a candidate] is to have an outrageous sense of possibility."

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