When only a party line divides

Front-runners Al Gore and George W. Bush echo each other as they seek

Has anyone ever seen them in the same place at the same time?

Maybe Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush are the same person. Or at least it seems that way at times, as the two major parties' new standard-bearers crisscross the US, sounding strikingly similar themes in their pitches to voters.

For the Republican Bush, his mantra of "compassionate conservatism" can sound a lot like the Democratic Gore's "practical idealism." Both men propose enlisting faith-based groups to help solve America's toughest social ills. Yet both also believe government can be a positive force for change - a major departure particularly for Mr. Bush, whose party in recent years has sought to minimize government's role, if not to eliminate it altogether.

Overall, both speak in the gauzy, nonideological language of family values, responsibility, and opportunity. They rarely identify themselves as "Republican" or "Democrat."

"They're not identical twins, but certainly they're fraternal twins," says Ross Baker, a political analyst at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

Skipping the primaries

In a way, the two leading candidates are leaping over the primary process - acting as if they've already won their parties' nominations - and going straight for the general election, which is usually a battle for the center.

There are good reasons, analysts say. The two campaigns and parties have read the polls and run focus groups: They know the public is tired of the sharp partisanship of recent years that shut down the government and came to full fruition during President Clinton's impeachment trial. And with no major national crises to contend with or burning demands from the public, both men can afford to dish up feel-good rhetoric.

Some conservative magazines have declared "the end of ideology." For politicos who welcome a good debate over substantive issues, the lack of real red meat in the campaign is cause for dismay.

"We have two candidates here from two different parties that traditionally disagree on the big-ticket visceral items - race quotas, immigration, taxes, crime, homosexual rights," says Jay Severin, a Republican consultant from New York who is not working for Bush. "Now we have them both morphing into each other."

If Bush is in the middle of a "brilliant marketing move" that broadens and redefines conservatism, and that ultimately strengthens the GOP's hold on Congress and captures the White House, says Mr. Severin, then no one can argue with it.

But he worries about a campaign that's driven more by celebrity than by issues, calling it "undemocratic."

Bush, for his part, maintains he'll get more specific with proposals as time goes on. Still, there's a school of thought among some Republicans that says why mess with a winning strategy: In polls, Bush is way ahead of any challengers for the Republican nomination and maintains a comfortable double-digit lead over Gore in general-election matchups.

If - as the actual primaries get closer and polls become more meaningful - Bush is still comfortably ahead, he may feel he can remain vague on his positions.

Democratic Party leaders want to make sure Bush doesn't coast easily into any victories, and are pedaling hard to cast the Texas governor and son of the ex-president as a true conservative in moderate clothing. At Bush campaign stops around the country, Democratic operatives hand out "fact sheets" spinning the governor's record in a conservative direction.

Democrats also pounce on, and distribute, any Bush statements that appear to be aimed at core conservative GOP voters. At a campaign appearance in Richmond, Va., on June 22, Bush made a more explicit statement about his stand on abortion than he usually does.

"America will have a law that protects the unborn child," he said.

Aha! Democrats cried. He's not at all moderate on abortion, they spun. Typically, Bush says that America isn't ready for such a law.

Democrats have also jumped on the gun-control issue - Bush opposes more restrictions on guns - as an important difference between him and Gore.

But even if Bush and Gore do differ on some issues, they are in unison on others. Both favor free trade and the death penalty, and want to improve early-childhood education in America. (Gore touts a plan for universal pre-kindergarten, while Bush wants to turn Head Start into a reading program to teach young children phonics.)

And on perhaps the most important philosophical question that has traditionally divided the two parties - the scope of the federal government's authority - Bush and Gore barely differ.

"The Bush position is to use the federal government to pursue mildly conservative objectives, and Gore's is to have the federal government pursue mildly liberal objectives," says Professor Baker of Rutgers.

Still, Baker doesn't believe the two leading candidates can coast all the way to November 2000 with nary a policy skirmish: Over the next 16-plus months, some news event is bound to happen that will spur national discussion - and as election day draws closer, voter demand for specificity can only grow.

Bush as a conservative

It's also possible, some nonpartisan analysts say, that the Democrats' effort to paint Bush as a conservative will only help his cause. Some conservative Republicans may be leery of Bush's moderate veneer, but if the Democrats successfully make the case that he's really a conservative, they may reassure the party's conservative base that he's worth working hard for during the general-election campaign.

Roy Romer, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, doesn't think he's doing Bush any favors by highlighting Bush's conservative positions. "I don't think he can keep his base and move to the middle at the same time," Mr. Romer said in an interview.

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