Candidates struggle to fill voters' 'boredom gap'

In the lull between primaries and conventions, Bush and Gore tinker with their messages.

Al Gore, it's time to go fishing.

That, at least, is the advice of Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, who is surveying the political landscape between now and the two major parties' conventions in August and seeing ... a wasteland.

Voters are tuning out by the minute. Ever since the presidential primaries effectively ended, pollsters running focus groups haven't been able to get average folks to recall anything of substance that the candidates are saying. Elian Gonzalez and Wall Street are the topics du jour, not who will be the next president.

"If I were advising Gore, I would advise him to disappear," said Mr. Greenberg, pollster for the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign, speaking at a recent Monitor breakfast. "This will stay a basically even contest until the conventions."

Naturally, officials from the 2000 Gore campaign disagree. After all, what presidential campaign would dare risk taking several months off, even if only the press and the pundits and a few hardy voters are really paying attention?

"Even if 80 percent of the campaign right now is worthless, the problem is we don't know which 80 percent is worthless," says Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster and unpaid volunteer for Mr. Gore. "Nobody's going to take the chance that they may have missed a voter or an event that could make a difference in a key state."

Still, if Greenberg's point is largely rhetorical, it does recall the larger quadrennial question: How to make the best of the long gap between the primaries and the conventions, a stretch that, in fact, has never been longer, given the unusually early primary season this year.

Pollster Andy Kohut says each major candidate faces distinct tasks in the months ahead. Texas Gov. George W. Bush's tough primary battle with Arizona Sen. John McCain for the Republican nomination hurt Governor Bush's image with the public. The number of voters who say they're not backing Bush because of his personality jumped from 19 percent to 31 percent in a recent poll by the Pew research center, which Mr. Kohut directs.

"I also think he has to reestablish himself as a centrist candidate," says Kohut.

Further, he adds, in these flush economic times, Bush needs to work especially hard to make the case for change in the nation's leadership.

For Gore, the challenge is to distance himself from President Clinton's negatives and, like Bush, boost how he is regarded personally, pollsters say. Voters still associate Gore with being "stiff" and with behavior reminiscent of the unctuous Eddie Haskell in "Leave it to Beaver," says Kohut.

Gore, say pollsters, also needs to get better at something Mr. Clinton has mastered: making people feel he understands their needs. And, according to Kohut's poll, he needs to boost his image as a leader, especially among male voters.

Republican consultant Nelson Warfield, press secretary to Bob Dole's presidential campaign four years ago, says he understands why some Democrats think Gore should lay low: The voters already know Gore from his seven-plus years as vice president, and if he were to maintain a high profile, he would "run the risk of reminding people they don't like him."

Gore campaign operatives respond that their candidate is still not widely known by the public, at least not in a three-dimensional way. So during this 3-1/2 months, both he and Bush face a two-pronged task: to define themselves positively and the other negatively.

If one thing is clear, says Mr. Warfield, it's that Bush won't repeat the mistake that Senator Dole made four years ago - sitting quietly between the primaries and the conventions, without funds, and unable to fight back against the negative attacks. This time around, Bush will not be limited in the amount of campaign cash he can spend, having decided to operate outside the federal-matching program.

Bush and Gore may also find this time off center-stage to be a useful period for the kind of primary-style, one-voter-at-a-time campaigning.

They can also trot out new themes and refine old ones outside the glare of intense media scrutiny. Speaking of Bush's recent speech laying out a proposal for health care, Atlanta-based Republican consultant Whit Ayres says: "He has the luxury of trying it out somewhat on the periphery of the national stage."

Recently, Bush has been trying to deal with a nagging issue outside the glare of front-page headlines: his relations with gay Republicans. Bush's decision to meet with gay leaders last week got only moderate attention, but his advisers know that he is walking on egg shells with this small sliver of the Republican electorate.

And if his dealings with that constituency were to anger the GOP's much larger social-conservative wing, it could flare up into a major flap - creating headlines the party isn't interested in seeing.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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