'Perma-grins' on, dukes up

The curtain goes up. The curtain comes down. And when all is said and done we leave Philadelphia with the campaign more or less where it was before we arrived, but with a clearer picture of what's ahead.

Campaign 2000: Sybil comes to politics.

Welcome to the politics of split personality. Why wear one face when two offer so many more options?

The Gore campaign has been playing this game for some time, but it now appears that George W. Bush's people are ready to play as well. You better buckle in for the ride from here on out.

Much of this week, the main story coming out of Philadelphia was the boredom of it all - Monday's rainbow of speakers, Mr. Bush's decrying Al Gore's negative attacks.

If coating words in saccharin were a crime, the area's prisons would have been filled with GOP presenters, each perma-grinning his or her way to a life sentence.

By Wednesday, however, the natives had gotten restless. Several delegates, when asked what they wanted to hear in Dick Cheney's speech could only answer "excitement."

They got it in a short but terse speech that sucked all the sweetness and light out of the First Union Center.

We were back in the familiar terrain of presidential politics.

But in this confusing whipsaw of a convention, two things became clear about where we are headed with this campaign. Whatever anyone says, we are going to be talking a lot about character.

Throughout this week there has been a buzz about how George W. is going to run an issue-based campaign. People may like Bush, say convention delegates and Bush supporters, but they also like what he stands for and that's what his campaign is going to be from here forward.

Of course, this is the right thing to say. Journalists love to hear about "the issues" even as they often ignore opportunities to cover them.

But this convention has not done a lot of focussing on "the issues."

The central theme has been character. It's been implicit in some speeches - John McCain's comes to mind - and more explicit in others. It's hard to get more direct than Mr. Cheney's line, "Mr. Gore will try to separate himself from his leader's shadow, but somehow we will never see one without thinking of the other."

Cheney did everything but call for a reform of the White House intern program.

Not that any of this is exactly shocking.

George W. knows his biggest strengths are his personality and his ties to a family name respected for its integrity.

And all signs coming out of Philly are that he intends to work these angles as much as possible.

But there are some dangers in this strategy. By attacking Bill Clinton, especially on anything relating to impeachment, Bush runs the risk of a) turning off American voters, and b) looking like his campaign, already linked with Bush Sr.'s staffers, is more concerned with turning the clock back to 1992 than pursuing a new agenda.

The whole point of Bush's candidacy is that he's different from the old Republican line.

And that leads into point No. 2 - the Sybilization of this contest. The job assignments coming out of Philadelphia are clear. Bush, the character man, will be the benevolent hand reaching out and Cheney will be the fist that throws the punches.

Overall, this is not a bad strategy; in fact it's been tested by time. Remember Spiro Agnew? But coming from the Bush camp, which has spent an excessive amount of time here talking about "uniting, not dividing," it sounds odd.

What's more, while it's clear that the tougher words of this convention were aimed at stirring the Republicans with a strong distaste for Mr. Clinton, in the process of energizing the base, Bush also offered Gore a huge opening.

Until Wednesday night's speech, Gore must have been at a loss.

The benefit of having the second convention, as the Democrats do this year, is the ability to answer the charges and definitions of the first event -to counterpunch.

But how does one counterpunch Barney the Dinosaur?

Now the Gore campaign has been given the green light to attack - and you best believe it will.

Only minutes after Cheney's speech, the faxes in the convention media compound were humming with Gore rapid-response-team faxes. There will be many more, some most certainly from the Bush camp.

So coming out of Philadelphia, the picture looks a lot like this: Talk about talking about issues, talk about the future while harping on the past, talk about being positive while attacking the other guy for being negative - and by all means smile.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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