PHILADELPHIA — The way Bush surrogates have been beating up on vice president Al Gore's folks here, you'd think that "Gore 2000" was some new HBO adults-only show. George W.'s opponents are running a "sleazy" campaign, a "dirty" campaign, they say.
You get the feeling that if George W. Bush's supporters owned Blockbuster, all videos containing so much as a blur of Mr. Gore would be on the 18-or-older shelf, out of the reach of children.
The reason for this outcry? The way the vice president's "attack squad" has gone after Dick Cheney, Mr. Bush's veep selection. The way Democrats have focused on Cheney's congressional voting record - including those to keep armor-piercing bullets legal and Nelson Mandela in prison - is just an example of the kind of dirty pool we can expect from Gore, Bush supporters say. Such moves are just wrong, wrong, wrong.
Not many people here appear to be buying the line though. And they shouldn't.
Nevermind the hypocrisy of it all. (It was the Bush campaign, remember, that found a single vote from John McCain and extrapolated it to mean the senator opposed breast cancer research.) Nevermind that candidates' records and pasts have always been fair game. (How many times have we heard about Gore and tobacco, how many more times will the Bush campaign recite lines from Gore's environmental tome "Earth in the Balance"?)
The real reason all self-righteous crying should be ignored is that one can only assume that Cheney was selected in part because of his record. Make no mistake - he's qualified to be vice president in many ways - if indeed there are qualifications for his slot. This is a man who knows Washington. He served as President Ford's chief of staff. He's been a congressman. He's been secretary of defense.
But his record is no secret. The moment the pick was announced, people in Washington began wondering aloud why Bush had picked such a conservative political partner.
The answer has something to do with the 2,066 delegates in this city.
Tonight (Aug. 2) Dick Cheney will step up to the podium here and deliver the most important speech in his political life. And he will do so in front of a crowd that is not only more conservative than most of America, but, according to a recent New York Times survey, more conservative than most Republicans.
This fact was not lost on Bush when he selected Cheney. Now he claims he's upset that Democrats and moderate Republicans are finding fault with some of Cheney's votes. This is a bit like choosing to wear a Yankee cap into Fenway Park and then getting angry that the Red Sox fans don't like it.
If Bush were smart, instead of getting mad, he'd happily acknowledge Cheney's conservative views as a way to lock down the GOP's solid, core voters, while gently stepping toward the middle.
He would use the next few days to say that, yes, Dick Che-
ney is a conservative, and he respects Cheney's mind and judgment, but his running mate is just one of the many different types of people he consults.
The problem is, Bush hasn't done that. He may yet, but up until now he's hemmed and hawed and gotten flustered. Maybe it's because Bush is so concerned with appealing to everyone that he can't bring himself to choose sides. Maybe its because he hasn't figured out which side he's on yet.
But whatever Bush's reasoning and whatever his plan, he would be wise not to have his running mate back away from his conservative roots at this point. Cheney is a good man, and the thing he brings to the Bush campaign is a reputation for integrity. If he begins to equivocate, that reputation will suffer.
All of which leaves the man from Texas in an odd place. After Monday night's feel-good "touched by a liberal" opening, a conservative speech from Cheney would give Bush the task of reconciling the philosophical differences on Thursday.
And who knows, the Philadelphia convention - as formulaic as it is compassionate - may yet see some drama.
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