||One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.|
Stuart Rothenberg: Are reporters ready to even up the presidential race?
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Everyone, especially reporters, knows about the ebb and flow of political campaigns.
First, the media falls in love with one candidate, praising his assets and focusing on his opponent's faults. Then, afraid that they have been unfair or merely fatigued with one angle of the story, they seem to turn on the front-runner. Suddenly, his political warts seem a lot larger and his assets almost invisible. His opponent, who a week earlier was an idiot who couldn't do anything right, quickly is transformed into a genius who has quietly been doing everything right.
Earlier this week, one Republican insider close to the presidential campaign of George W. Bush told me that he was betting that media coverage of Bush and Vice President Al Gore would change soon. "It's already started," he added with a sense of resignation, probably eyeing the media's interest in the death penalty and executions scheduled in Texas.
Well, given recent coverage of Gore's Social Security proposal, higher gas prices (especially in the Midwest) and temporarily missing computer drives containing some of the country's nuclear secrets, it's difficult to believe that things can continue to get much worse for Gore. Many reporters, I'm willing to bet, are starting to wonder if they've been spending too much time on the vice president's problems, thereby contributing to Bush's strength in the polls.
The last 10 days have been bad for Gore not merely because reporters have portrayed him as hypocritical about the stock market as an appropriate vehicle for retirement funds, or because security problems at Los Alamos made Energy Secretary Bill Richardson look as if he were in over his head.
The coverage has been bad because it has taken the vice president far off message, away from issues such as gun control, a patient's bill of rights and the cost of pharmaceuticals, where Gore has an advantage.
(By the way, feel free to remove Bill Richardson's name from your list of potential Democratic running mates for Gore. Bobby Richardson, the former New York Yankee second baseman and one-time Republican Congressional candidate in South Carolina, now has as much chance as the energy secretary of being tapped by Gore.)
Just as important as keeping Gore off message, the recent media coverage of his retirement savings proposal, rising gas prices and possibly missing secrets has put all of the attention on Gore. The only way for the vice president to make up ground against Bush is for the electorate to focus on potential problems and weaknesses of the governor. This could happen at the GOP's Philadelphia convention, during one of the debates, or even now, but only if Bush becomes the subject of media scrutiny.
If the media's focus remains on Gore, the vice president is likely to be stuck in his rut, trailing Bush by a half dozen points or so (a rough average of recent polls).
The simple fact of the 2000 presidential election is that if the election is about the Texas governor -- about his agenda, experience and ability to handle the presidency -- then Gore probably has the edge in November. But if the election is about the vice president -- about his leadership abilities, his willingness to re-make himself to win the job and his connection to President Bill Clinton -- then Bush wins the White House.
Ironically, the problems currently facing the Clinton Administration may actually give Gore an opportunity to help himself. He has been facing a "leadership gap" in polls, and rising gas prices (particularly in Illinois and Michigan, states with lots of electoral votes) gives Gore an opportunity to lambaste the oil companies. If prices do come down over the next few weeks, the administration -- and Gore, in particular -- is likely to take credit for the drop.
While rising gas prices may not constitute a "crisis" the way the Cuban missile crisis did for President John Kennedy or the Berlin blockade did for President Harry Truman, they provide Gore an opportunity to demonstrate leadership. (This is the case even if Gore's rhetoric and actions have nothing to do with changes in price at the gas pump.)
Make no mistake about it: Gore needs the media to turn its attention to Bush quickly.
There are only a little more than five weeks until the Republican National Convention is gaveled to order in Philadelphia. Bush will be under the microscope then, but conventions often turn out to be less a test for the nominee than a public relations bonanza for his party.
If Bush becomes the focus of media scrutiny over the next couple of weeks (and both national developments and the vice president's own actions have something to do with that), the governor will go into his convention under greater pressure than he now is.
If, on the other hand, the media focus remains on Gore, Bush will be able to act more presidential and will coast into his convention with increased confidence and stature.