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In a first, Gore forces Bush to play defense

With the polls even, the Texas governor is being roped into arguing policy details.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 24, 2000



WASHINGTON

It's gut-check time for George W. Bush.

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Once leading comfortably in the polls, the Republican presidential nominee suddenly finds himself in a tight race, the wind in his face instead of at his back.

In the polls, Democratic challenger Al Gore has now pulled slightly ahead of Mr. Bush or at least into a dead heat. But the new closeness of the race - predicted by both camps since the beginning of the campaign - masks the more important development, which is that Mr. Gore has seized the momentum.

Suddenly, Bush has been drawn into Gore's game plan, debating the details of policy proposals, and in particular, has been pushed into a defensive posture on one of his key policy proposals, a $1.3 trillion tax cut over 10 years.

"I think Bush has got some problems," says a Republican strategist and former top official from the Dole campaign four years ago. "It was a very happy convention in Philadelphia, and suddenly the real world crashed in at the Democrat convention."

Bush faces a hard choice, says the strategist. He can go "comparative" with Gore, that is, line up his proposals against Gore's and explain to the voters why they'll be better off with him than with Gore.

But he can also go on the attack - although in his efforts to regain momentum Bush has to be careful not to go too far. He has promised a positive campaign, and the public claims to be in no mood for below-the-belt blows.

During the toughest moment of his primary battle with John McCain, in South Carolina, Bush unleashed some attacks on the Arizona senator that raised eyebrows, notably a claim that Mr. McCain didn't support funding for breast-cancer research.

But at the end of the day, Bush won that do-or-die primary and, say Republicans, it's hard to argue with success. And Gore, too, has a reputation for punching hard.

Will the bounce last?

As both campaigns take stock after their conventions, the great unknown is how solid the new poll numbers are.

In the short history of modern-day politics, some convention bounces last and some don't. Gore appears in most polls to have earned a bigger-than-average, double-digit boost from the Los Angeles show, but his advisers know that, with 76 days to go before election day - and with the Olympics soon to be siphoning away the public's attention - few opportunities remain to grab the voters.

During the Democrats' L.A. convention, "many people heard him for the first time, really," says Doug Hattaway, a Gore spokesman.

Bush officials say they expected Gore to get an even bigger bounce than he did. Going into his convention, Bush had already locked up the votes of 90 percent of Republican voters, while Gore was struggling on the eve of his own convention with less than 80 percent support from his base. Now, polls show that Gore is winning more than 80 percent of Democratic voters.

In particular, Gore has made strides among women voters. According to the latest Gallup poll, Gore leads Bush among women by 20 points. Bush leads among men by the same margin.

Before the Democratic convention, Bush led overall in the Gallup poll by 16 points; now, in a four-way race, Gore has 47 percent, Bush has 46 percent, the Green Party's Ralph Nader has 3 percent, and the Reform Party's Pat Buchanan has 2 percent among likely voters.

Depending on which page in the history books they're looking at, both major-party candidates have reason for hope. In 1984, Democratic nominee Walter Mondale left his convention with a small lead over President Ronald Reagan, but went on to lose every state on election day except his home state of Minnesota. In 1988, Vice President George Bush chronically trailed the Democrat, Michael Dukakis, until the GOP convention, then surged into the lead for good.

"In this case, you've got fundamentals on both sides that'll make it a close race," says Jack Pitney, a political analyst at Claremont McKenna College in southern California.

Advantages

In Bush's favor, there's the natural desire for change after eight years. Working for Gore is peace and prosperity.

Gore's "I will fight for you" populist message - presumably calibrated to address any voter resentment against corporations and other so-called powerful interests - seems to be working so far. But there could be limits to that argument in an era when 75 percent of likely voters own stock, says Mr. Pitney.

It's not that the average middle-income stockowner holds too much brief for corporations, he says, but "stock ownership does mitigate hostility to corporations."

Regardless, the post-convention landscape, on the eve of the traditional Labor Day campaign kickoff, is starkly different from the way it looked over the past year.

Suddenly, Gore has hit his stride, and Bush has to retool.

"They spent six months constructing the education program, Social Security plan, and compassionate-conservative image, and in one not-terribly-well-devised week, it was utterly destroyed by the Democratic convention," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville.

But ultimately, he says, this is a good test of Bush's mettle: "If he wins, he will have proven himself."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society