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Bush and the momentum game

The lead in presidential elections now changes faster than ever in an age of swing voters and ubiquitous polls.

By Abraham McLaughlinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 19, 2000



WASHINGTON

As he begins a concerted bid to infuse his presidential campaign with new energy this week, George W. Bush can take comfort in this political reality: Swings in political momentum can happen more quickly, more suddenly than ever before.

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Already in this election cycle, the GOP presidential hopeful has seen momentum shift from his campaign to that of Sen. John McCain, back to his, and now, almost tangibly, to Democrat Al Gore's.

Mr. Bush's revised campaign strategy is a multipronged approach that includes a new slogan, a taxing schedule that requires more face time with voters, and a direct pitch to the middle class.

Only time, though, will tell if this recipe will yield that elusive thing called momentum - an uncertain concoction created not only by the candidate, but also by the news media, pollsters, and the electorate itself. Indeed, while Bush has made missteps in the past few weeks that have added to his problems, unusual - and even inexplicable - forces at work in this election are speeding momentum shifts. "This is going to be an episodic election, episodic over thematic," says Democratic pollster Peter Hart. Usually, he says, candidates build momentum over long stretches, but this year is topsy-turvy.

Part of the reason is the sheer closeness of the race: The allegiances of a relatively small number of voters can change who is in the lead. At the same time, rising ranks of independents and swing voters - those without strong party fealty - have contributed to electorate volatility.

Experts point, too, to the explosion of polling in the past decade - especially horse-race surveys - that put greater emphasis on who's up and who's down. And the media - always looking for a new story - grab onto polls as evidence of momentum.

Former CBS political director Martin Plissner says that, as a reporter, "If you've got three stories to do this week, and you've already brilliantly analyzed the prescription-drug plans, why not do a story on the story?" - on the horse race and the latest polls.

Final Big Mo

With the election just 49 days away, turning or keeping the Big Mo has now become critical.

"The one crucial stretch of momentum is the very last one," says veteran GOP strategist Sal Russo. Back in 1980, his candidate, Ronald Reagan, caught a wave of momentum in the closing days of the tight race and sped past President Jimmy Carter. "You've got to get control of the agenda and drive it."

That's what Bush is trying to do this week. Today he's bound for Oprah Winfrey's show and Florida. Yesterday he was in Arkansas, Kansas, and Illinois talking tax cuts, including his child-tax-credit plan, which would double the current credit for kids to $1,000 each.

With a new slogan, "Real Plans for Real People," and a white paper called "Blueprint for The Middle Class," Bush is trying to challenge Gore on issues such as education, Social Security, and healthcare - traditional Democratic strengths.

In shifting from a strategy that relied heavily on the issue of character, the Bush camp seems to have accepted a new reality: Gore has largely defused the dark-cloud issue of integrity that hung over him for so long.

The vice president appears to have overcome Bush on the issue of "trust," for example. In June, reports Mr. Hart, Bush held an eight-point lead over Gore. Now Gore has a two-point lead. On "leadership," Bush had a 21-point lead in June. Now it's seven points.

Bush's aides note that the Texas governor will travel 6,076 miles this week - a statistic meant to counter a perception that he's been lackadaisical, especially compared with the peripatetic Gore, who hit the hustings for 24 hours straight on Labor Day. Bush recently boosted his schedule to six days a week.

Indeed, while Gore was lagging badly in the polls last year - and trying to escape the hulking shadow of President Clinton - Bush was raising millions of dollars and looking unbeatable. Critics sniggered when Gore moved his campaign headquarters to Tennessee and started wearing khaki and burnt umber.

Bush's missteps

Now things are different. Certainly the Bush camp is partly to blame for the momentum swing. It took hits over its handling of the debates. There was also Bush's off-color criticism of a newspaper reporter, which he didn't intend the public to hear. "All of a sudden you can't believe how many voters hear that remark and react to [it]," says Hart.

In a close race, more emphasis is put on the candidates and their conduct - both the kudos they get and the flubs they make. Besides next month's debates, Hart says, the election will come down to details. "There are going to be little things that people will latch onto," he says, "and use as guiding posts throughout this election."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society