A big test of presidential timbre

The candidates' different approaches to the electoral drama reveal much about how each might govern.

The two scenes in Washington and Texas could hardly be more different.

The central players in one of history's most riveting electoral dramas - each in his separate world, each approaching his predicament in wholly different ways - are providing fresh clues as to how they might actually govern as president.

Mr. Gore is planted at the dining table of his turreted official manse here in Washington. He's firing off e-mails on his hand-held Blackberry communications device. He's poring over fine print of Florida law. He's a one-man war room, overseeing the minutiae of his newest campaign.

Mr. Bush is mostly ensconced at his Texas ranch, far from his official residence in Austin. He's made the big strategic decisions - and his regimented staff does the rest. He's doing three conference calls a day. He's exercising. He's chatting with reporters as his barky dog, Spot, stands near. He's referring most questions about Florida to James Baker III.

As the post-election marathon enters its 15th day, those who have observed the two candidates during this period of uncertainty see strengths and weaknesses in both.

What they're doing right

Bush has managed to project an image of relaxed strength, delegating responsibility and sticking steadfastly to positions ("hand recounts are undesirable") carved out early in the process.

Gore, for his part, has shown himself adept at shaping public opinion. So far, he's brought a majority of Americans along with his assertion that counting each Florida vote is more important than deciding the winner quickly.

In particular, these analysts say, Gore's surprise speech last Wednesday night - during network news broadcasts - showed a certain adroitness and caught many, including Bush, off guard.

"Gore had a tough circumstance," says Christopher Arterton, a political scientist at George Washington University here. "He's turned it around by pretty well keeping the public's attention on the issue of fairness - rather than on the image of squabbling over votes."

Gore "did seem to have a larger view of the public interest at heart," agrees William Leuchtenburg, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Gore as 'Clintonian'?

But others characterize Gore and his party as "Clintonian" in their tactics and demeanor.

"This is an effort on a scale that we really haven't seen in presidential politics - trying to find every single vote and exploring every avenue regardless of the larger cost to the system," says Earl Black, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston.

He sees Democrats' efforts, including taking some 10,000 affidavits from disgruntled voters in Florida, as pugilistic and legal-minded - to the point of hurting the transfer-of-power process.

Another perspective on Gore that's emerged in the post-election scramble is this: Despite his reputation as being tightly controlled by pricey consultants during the campaign, the vice president in fact is "a man who considers himself his own chief strategist."

In that regard, his style could not be more different from that of the Texas governor.

In management style, Bush is clearly a delegater. His staff deflects most vote-recount questions - the most important - to Mr. Baker.

Some observers go so far as to liken Bush with President Ronald Reagan - although the comparison carries only so far. "Reagan had a powerful ideological compass," says Mr. Arterton, while Bush seems more flexible.

The Texan's easygoing demeanor has also helped to stave off "any talk that because he has fewer electoral votes and fewer popular votes he's creating a constitutional crisis by holding out," says Professor Leuchtenburg.

As for missteps, Bush's public efforts in the first days after election night to set up a transition team received criticism - and he backed off. He has also had some knocks for not accepting Gore's invitation to meet, a stance that some say undermines his self-proclaimed skill as a "uniter."

Given these actions, there's a risk of appearing to be arrogant - "that as president he'll act as though he's won a mandate, even though he would have lost the popular vote," says Leuchtenburg.

But any tendency toward arrogance was at least partially snipped last week after Gore's surprise speech sent Bush hurtling from his ranch back to Austin to deliver a response to the public.

Persuasiveness counts

But if a key element of presidential leadership is knowing how to frame a debate, Gore's ability so far to stave off a major sense of impatience among the public must be acknowledged.

A Newsweek poll released Saturday found that 61 percent of Americans say fairness in counting the Florida vote is more important than getting the presidency decided quickly.

On the face of it, that's good news for Gore. Still, there are trouble signs: Last week, 72 percent favored fairness over resolution, hinting that impatience may be growing.

If the trend continues and public opinion flip-flops, it could change the dynamics of the drama - and further test the skills of the two presidents-in-waiting.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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