Issues, not style, take over

As Gore pledges new government programs, Bush strikes back with market- based plans.

Much about the 2000 presidential race has changed in just a few short weeks.

Suddenly the campaign trail is bursting with banter about policy specifics - about $25-a-month prescription-drug premiums or required reading tests for all third-graders. Suddenly the contest is more about issues than character, more about substance than style.

Analysts - including some Republicans - say this means trouble for George W. Bush, at least for the moment. They argue that Mr. Bush's path to the presidency has gotten steeper as the campaign has shifted to the politics of budget surpluses and Democrats' traditional strength on some social issues.

Politics amid government surpluses and a platinum economy is especially tough for Bush. Unlike in recent years, many voters are less skittish about Democratic plans to spend on entitlement programs, such as a prescription-drug benefit. And so far they're not embracing big tax cuts. The change in the campaign has brought out a sense of realism among Republican faithful. "If this race continues to be about Democratic issues, I don't think Bush can win it," says California-based veteran GOP strategist Tony Quinn.

Part of the reason the race shifted to issues was simply the beginning of the all-out fall campaign. "Primaries are always about personalities," says Michael Young, a political scientist at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. "And general elections are always about issues."

Gore's well-received convention speech emphasized issue specifics - and challenged voters not to see the race as a "popularity contest." Two other events also shifted the debate away from Gore's character, observers say: his choice of a running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman, who was critical of President Clinton on moral grounds; and Attorney General Janet Reno's recent decision not to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Gore's fundraising history.

In fact, "character and Clinton fatigue are dead issues in this race," asserts independent pollster Del Ali. Now, instead of defining leadership as all about character and tone, "George Bush has to define leadership as policy."

This week, both candidates are playing up issues they believe they can capitalize on. Today in Portsmouth, N.H., Bush pressed his education agenda by proposing more federal grants for first-year college students and for helping states pay for high schoo programs for advanced pupils.

Later, in a visit to a school in Holland, Ohio, he was expected to remind voters of his plan to require reading and math tests for third- through eighth-graders. It would also give private-school vouchers to parents at poorly performing schools. By proposing vouchers for schools - and private investment as part of Social Security - Bush "has been able to inject a private-marketplace philosophy" into the debate, says Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli.

This has helped him close the traditional gap between Republicans and Democrats on those issues. In 1988, for instance, a New York Times/CBS poll found voters favoring Democrats over Republicans on education 55 percent to 23 percent. Last month, the gap had closed to 45 percent to 33 percent.

"It was smart of him to try to take on the Democrats on their issues - but the question is whether he can succeed," says Anna Greenberg, a public-policy professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

But in other areas - ones more directly affected by the politics of surplus - Bush has perhaps a harder road. That's because in the era of ever-expanding surplus projections, "there's been a relaxation of the anti-entitlement mentality" that dominated the 1990s and led to, among other things, welfare reform, says Mr. Ciruli.

This favors Democrats, he says, whose "long-established track record of being able to promise more gives them a natural advantage." So on issues like Social Security and Medicare - both of which Gore has promised to add a new entitlement to - "Democrats will probably win it."

The surplus helps blunt one traditional GOP criticism of Democrats - that they're "tax-and-spend liberals." In 1988 Bush's father used that phrase to great effect against Democrat Michael Dukakis. But in these flush times, taxes don't need to be raised and spending is easier to justify.

That confines Bush more to the anti-big-government argument. The Bush campaign called Gore's prescription-drug plan, for instance, a "nationalized drug plan" that's "similar to Hillary Clinton's attempt to nationalize healthcare in 1993."

Even if Gore is winning some of the issues of the moment, perceptions could change quickly in a race as snare-drum tight as this one. "One problem is that Gore may be firing all his silver bullets now," says Mr. Quinn, the Republican. "And he's not going to be able to say the same thing for six weeks."

Indeed, after a week of taking hits on healthcare, Bush is set to release his own prescription-drug plan next week. Observers say he'll be forced to get specific on many policies - and challenge Gore's early control of the issues. Already, Bush has proven himself the more likeable candidate, and he still leads in many polls on "leadership qualities." But there's a danger that if he doesn't add more policy elements to his appeal, "people may like George W. a lot," says Mr. Ali, "but not necessarily want to vote for him."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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