Six months before election day, Gov. George W. Bush has made significant progress toward rebuilding the electoral coalition that kept the White House in Republican hands from 1980 to 1992.
A widespread perception among voters that he is both genial and decisive has allowed Mr. Bush to unify the GOP base and make inroads into key swing-voter groups, such as married women, that President Clinton carried in his 1992 and '96 victories.
In political terms, six months is a long time - meaning that Vice President Al Gore could still easily overcome the single-digit lead that Bush has in many polls. Bush's embrace of private retirement accounts for Social Security might work against him, as Social Security is an issue that generations of Democrats
have turned to their advantage.
But for now, Bush is running a surprisingly energetic campaign that aims to portray him as a centrist with a smile - emphasis on the smile. It hasn't escaped his staff's notice that the candidate who voters believe is friendlier has won every national vote since the beginning of the Reagan era.
"I don't know if there is any particular policy initiative that's giving Bush his lead," says Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling here. "It's personal skill and character. Those are the tangibles at this point."
Bush's overall lead is substantial but not overwhelming. A recent New York Times/CBS poll put him eight points ahead of Mr. Gore among all voters. A Los Angeles Times poll produced a similar figure.
This horse-race lead, in and of itself, may not be that indicative. As the Gore camp likes to point out, at this point in 1988 Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis led Vice President George Bush by 10 points. Most political pros don't think voters pay much attention to politics until after Labor Day.
The danger sign for Gore is in the breadth of the Bush lead. The Texas governor is ahead in most age and economic categories. He trails his Democratic rival only among voters who are over 65.
Bush leads among men - as Sen. Bob Dole did throughout the 1996 campaign. But he also has some electoral appeal to women, something Mr. Dole never had. A Bush edge among married women offsets Gore's lead among single women and virtually eliminates the "gender gap" that favored Democrats in '92 and '96. In The New York Times poll, Bush led among women, 44 to 42 percent.
Bush has gained, too, with northeastern, Roman Catholic, and independent voters. "The feedback I'm getting is he has become sort of every person's candidate," says Floyd Ciruli, a Denver-based pollster.
On issues from education to taxes, voters tend to prefer Democratic solutions. That could prove a substantial advantage for Gore as attention to the campaign increases.
Gore still labors in the shadow of a popular president, as Vice President Bush did in 1988 until after the GOP convention.
The Texas governor, though, benefits from inchoate positive feelings voters have for his father. That might change when they hear more about his Texas record.
What opinions voters have formed are based on impressions of the man, not the plan. Substantial majorities of voters say Bush is more of a leader than Gore, despite the fact that Gore has served in office for almost one-quarter of a century, as opposed to the Texas governor's four years.
Majorities of voters say Bush is surer of his opinions than is Gore - whether those opinions are expressed in characteristically Bushian mangled syntax or not. "People think Gore is smarter, but they don't necessarily trust him," says James Thurber, a political scientist at American University here.
This emphasis on personality over politics may be emblematic of a satisfied age, say analysts. At a time when the economy is performing well and few foreign-policy dangers loom on the horizon, political image becomes even more important than it would be otherwise.
It may also be emblematic of campaign tactics. Gore has spent much of the spring hammering Bush policies as risky. This approach worked well against Bill Bradley during the primary campaign, but has proved less effective against a governor who has something of Ronald Reagan's ability to shrug off criticism with a smile and a "there you go again" rhetorical deflection.
Bush, for his part, has hopped around the country holding numerous small events that focus on education and other popular issues. His folksy approach has allowed him to recover from his turn to the right during the primaries, perhaps more quickly than the Gore camp anticipated.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society