A campaign briefing

As the presidential race heats up, it seems timely to ask some questions on what is going on - and provide the best answers I can.

Q: A candidate can be judged by the people he'll bring in with him. Who, for example, would be George W. Bush's secretary of state?

A: Charles Black, an adviser of Mr. Bush, his father, and Ronald Reagan, told a Monitor breakfast that young Bush is likely to turn to congressional Republicans in selecting several of his Cabinet members and, particularly, his secretary of State. Might this not be Sen. Richard Lugar? Mr. Black didn't say so - but Mr. Lugar is the most-respected foreign-policy expert on the Hill.

Black also mentioned that two "old bulls" - former Secretary of State George Shultz and former Defense Secretary Richard Cheney - are among those now advising Bush. Black left the impression they might return in a Bush administration. He also said Bush would bring some fellow governors into key roles in his administration - should he be elected.

Q: What is the long-range political impact of Bush's inability to come up with the names of foreign leaders?

A: Foreign-policy expert Zbigniew Brzezinski came to breakfast after Bush's encounter with what I regard as cheap-shot, gotcha journalism. Mr. Brzezinski said that he, himself, would have been able to name two of the four leaders (Bush named one). "For the other two," he said, "I would have had to do this." And then he mumbled something as we all laughed.

I think that Bush was, however, hurt by the episode - as unfair to him as it was. The confrontation underscored his failure, thus far, to show his competency in foreign affairs. Both Black and GOP chairman Jim Nicholson, our breakfast guest the preceding morning, assured us Bush was getting up to speed and would soon deliver a major speech in which he'd specify his foreign-policy positions.

Bill Clinton, like most governors, was no foreign affairs expert, but voters got behind him because of his domestic policy.

Q: What is the "political climate" today - what are people saying is on their minds today?

A: Once I could answer this with some certainty. During the long years when I was actively covering politics, I never missed an opportunity to get off a campaign press bus and talk to people. Otherwise you end up just talking to other reporters - often not much better than talking to yourself. Yet a lot of reporters still do precisely that. So a "story line," often based on the perception of some old-time reporters, is often followed by many others on the bus.

I'm watching from the sidelines these days. But one highly regarded veteran newsman who has always practiced "get-away-from-the-bus" journalism - The Washington Post's David Broder - has just concluded a most valuable trip in which he talked to people from coast to coast. His findings contain this highlight: "Bill Clinton has seeded the atmosphere with so many doubts about his presidential character that the hunger for a trustworthy successor could trump any issues in which the rival nominees choose to run."

Mr. Broder's reportorial research confirms what I'm hearing in letters I receive. Although their numbers have dwindled since the impeachment period, they tell me that a lot of Americans, both Democrat and Republican, want - more than anything else - to replace Clinton with a person who has character.

Q: Will Pat Buchanan's presence on the Reform Party ballot damage the Republican presidential candidate?

A: Charles Black doesn't think so. "I talked to Buchanan yesterday morning," he said, "and I told him that he was history. And now we have gone a full hour at this breakfast and, as we are about to leave, someone asks about Buchanan. That proves he's history."

I, too, think the Reform Party candidate - whether Buchanan, Trump, or Perot - won't draw more than 7 percent of the vote and, probably, less than that. Buchanan might take a little more away from the Republican than from the Democratic candidate - but it won't be consequential.

Q: How goes the Democratic race?

A: Now Gore has a female adviser who's telling him how to dress. It's part of his almost desperate effort to present his "real self" to the voters. His open search for a new identity is hurting him with supporters. Many are drifting to Bill Bradley.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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