How the GOP seeks to frame voters' choice

Bush will espouse a positive vision, while surrogates go on the attack.

If you listen to the rhetoric, it sounds as if the 2000 presidential race will boil down to a simple choice for voters: naughty versus nice.

Republicans will try every which way to portray Vice President Al Gore, as the naughty, even mean, successor to an administration that has left Washington looking like a latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah.

The "nice" candidate, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, will stay above the fray, relentlessly positive, flashing his golden "Q" rating - that elusive quality of TV-transmitted likability.

But it won't be that simple. Even if top Republicans have at times sounded a touch overconfident during the four-day pep rally known as the Republican National Convention, they know the hard work has only just begun. "We get to the serious part now," says Karl Rove, a senior Bush strategist.

Going into the convention, Governor Bush already enjoyed the support of about 90 percent of the Republican electorate. Gore is stuck in the mid-70s with his base of Democratic voters, who have yet to rally around their man the way the GOP has. The real battleground - that one-third of the electorate that is unaffiliated - is up for grabs, and Republicans are primed to give it all they've got between now and Nov. 7.

Yet while promising to remain positive, the Republicans have already shown that they know they have to go negative, too.

Right up until the moment GOP vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney took the podium Wednesday night, Mr. Rove assured television viewers that voters were hungry for a "different" kind of campaign.

And then Mr. Cheney launched into the kind of red-meat rhetoric against the Clinton-Gore administration that woke up bored convention delegates - but left some Republican strategists wondering if more subtle digs might be the better approach.

The Bush campaign is trying to walk a fine line.

"I don't know of any army that's ever won without going on the offense," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist and author of the coming "The Art of Political Warfare." "It has to involve attacks and criticism."

But, he says, it doesn't necessarily mean a "frontal assault" from Bush himself. The campaign could use surrogates, such as the 29 other Republican governors around the country, who can speak from experience about how running a state prepares a candidate for the Oval Office, and how Washington policies affect real people at the local level.

Congressional Republicans, still suffering from image problems and nearly invisible during the convention's prime time, probably won't get to play Braveheart during the campaign. Even with control of the House of Representatives hanging in the balance, the Bush campaign has held the congressional campaigns at arm's length, keeping their man largely away from the House candidates. Bush has yet to do a fundraiser for the Republican House committee charged with keeping Congress in GOP hands.

The tone of the campaign may vary, especially in the battleground states.

In Minnesota, known for a brand of politics dubbed "Minnesota nice," all Bush has to do is "let his personality show," says Ronald Eibensteiner, the state party chair. He thinks the race isn't really issue-driven, and voters "just want to see if this guy's a good guy."

In Pennsylvania, another crucial state for each candidate, Bush should "keep showing us that passage to his heart," says GOP chair Alan Novak.

And in Florida, which strategists from both sides believe is still in play, especially if Gore puts their Democratic senator, Bob Graham, on the ticket, Republican chair Al Cardenas thinks Bush needs to mention issues - education, Social Security, Medicare, the environment, and taxes.

Mr. Cardenas also thinks overconfidence won't be a problem for Bush, whose brother won the governorship here two years ago after a failed first attempt. In addition to that loss, he also mentions Bush's father's loss in 1992 for reelection as president, and George W.'s loss when he ran for Congress in the 1970s.

"They've had plenty of the taste of defeat," says Cardenas, "and they understand how quickly a lead can dissipate."

Rove, the Bush strategist, is also well aware of the Bush family history. Former President Bush's approval ratings soared into the 90 percent range after the 1991 Gulf War, only to plunge by election time in 1992. The Bush people insist they're not overconfident. This week, Rove called himself, "the most anxiety-ridden guy you've ever met in your life."

And the Bush campaign isn't resting on any leads. After sewing up the support of the Republican base, Rove says the campaign is targeting three demographic groups that supported Clinton in his two victories: 1. Men and women, generally weak Republicans or unaffiliated independents who tend to live in slightly older suburbs 2. Roman Catholics, who form one or two significant swing-voter groups in virtually every battleground state, and 3. Hispanics, who he says are weakly linked to the Democratic Party.

But independents and Democrats are particularly sensitive about the GOP attacks. And even some Republican strategists felt Cheney's digs against the current administration were a mistake. The public already knows Clinton's downside, and he's leaving office anyway. Clinton's personal problems haven't rubbed off on Mr. Gore, polls show.

Republican pollster Frank Luntz saw his party engaging in a calculated strategy: Differentiate the Republicans from Clinton-Gore, face some initial negative reaction to that, but reap long-term benefits by giving the public important information. On the floor of the convention, of course, the attacks played well. Some delegates had begun to grumble about the pablum of rhetoric coming from the podium that failed to draw sharp enough contrasts between Bush and Gore.

Still, Mr. Luntz thinks Cheney's attacks were a mistake. The GOP's best weapon is Bush's pleasant demeanor. When Bush speaks straight to the camera, viewers' positive reactions "go through the roof," says Luntz, who has been conducting a nightly focus group of undecided voters during the convention.

The biggest challenge the Republicans may face is making the case for change. Historically, a strong economy has boded well for the party in power. One line from Cheney elicited glee from Democrats: "Does anyone, Republican or Democrat, seriously believe that under Mr. Gore, the next four years will be any different from the last eight?"

The expected Democratic response is: "And the public isn't interested in four more years of peace and prosperity?"

Liz Marlantes contributed to this article.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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