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How the Bush campaign lost its edge

( -- "Just remember," George W. Bush told aides in his Detroit hotel room last Thursday morning, as he read his political obituaries in the papers, "this is when you find out who your friends are."

The polls were so tight it was getting harder to breathe; Republican wise men in Washington were calling for a human sacrifice. But this is the same team that saw Bush through his two races for governor and helped him dig out from the New Hampshire avalanche. It would be unthinkable for him to abandon them now. In fact, Bush is making his own target list, of all those supposed allies who have publicly worried or whined every time anything went wrong. As always, George W. keeps score. "When we win," an adviser says, "all those people are going to be at the back of the line" for jobs and other favors that a new administration can bestow.

But any talk of retribution doesn't mean that the Republican message of alarm wasn't getting through to the Bush plane. Before the day was over, it was Bush who was having to reinvent himself, after nearly four straight weeks of playing sloppy defense. He abandoned his debate filibuster, snagged a new slogan -- real plans for real people -- his fourth of the campaign, and announced that he would return to town-meeting events much as he had after John McCain whupped him in New Hampshire. Why? "Well, it's a better picture," he said.

The Bush operatives could be forgiven for ignoring their own warnings that this was destined to be a close race. All through the giddy spring and summer of the Bush ascendancy, they swapped poll results like Pokémon cards. On the walls of the brown campaign cubicles at Austin headquarters were huge national maps with a wide Bush blanket of blue covering the states in which he was up. A few specks of yellow marked the toss-ups, and the Gore strongholds in red were so small they looked like squashed bugs. The heady numbers were such a point of pride for the Bush team that they boasted about them on their web site. "Gore has never led in a likely voter poll," it crowed. The last update, however, was mid-August. Since then, it's been hurricane season.

Last week most polls showed a dead heat, including TIME/CNN, which had Gore ahead 47 percent to 46 percent. Bush's double-digit lead of a month ago had deserted him, thanks largely to female voters carpooling home to the Democrats. Even Bush couldn't defy the rules of courtship forever: In times of peace and prosperity, it takes more than a sunny disposition to persuade voters to dump their dates. Bush's flawless postprimary campaign obscured the fact that by any historical measure, he never should have been that far ahead in the first place. While Gore did help himself with a buoyant convention and a focused message, he is also helped as people begin to pay more attention and discover the veep is not quite the stiff they thought he was. He not only has an edge on the issues Americans say they care most about, from education and the environment to Social Security and Medicare, as of last week he had even caught up in the popularity contest, edging past Bush in the race to be more "likable," according to TIME/CNN's poll.

The Bush camp was trying not to panic, though top fund-raisers were tapped to call up big donors and hold their hands. "Everyone thought we were so good that we were gonna walk away with this thing," sighs a top adviser to the Texas governor. "Even we started believing it." Last week there was no shortage of Republican operatives who said they had seen trouble coming for weeks, even months, but none of the cocky co-pilots in Austin would listen. Some image advisers inside the campaign and back in Washington at Republican headquarters had said for weeks the Bush campaign had to start ripping into Gore. The ads were in the can. It was time to go.

But at that point Bush believed his mud-free, high-road approach was working for him -- which it was. He was leading in the polls, killing Gore in key states and steadily building his strength among women, independents and other swing voters. Why spend the money and risk a backlash when everything was going just great?

Following the Democratic convention last month, Gore was jabbed by the commentariat for his down-market populism -- all that talk about "fighting for working families" -- but the campaign can now claim that it worked to bring home restless Democrats. So just as they had planned in Los Angeles, Gore last week was ready to broaden his message to say he was fighting for "hard-working middle-class families" -- gradually moving up the economic ladder to the more affluent suburbanites Gore needs to pull way ahead. It was all humming along so smoothly that the man himself seemed transformed. He spent Labor Day in a round-the-clock workathon, bonding with his buddy Joe, changing outfits like Diana Ross, but sticking to his message of targeted tax cuts, Medicare drug benefits and some bright new strands for the safety net. "We knew that when it came time to engage, good things would happen," says a Gore adviser, "that we would go to terrain very favorable for us."

"We let the guy come back to life," says a Republican who had worked on the GOP ads that never ran. "It was a great blunder." Once Gore got his footing and started throwing out policy positions like knuckle balls aimed at Bush's head, Bush faced a different challenge: to make the case that issues don't matter without character. Though Bush at times makes an ideological pitch, that he trusts the people with their own money while Gore puts his faith in archaic bureaucracies, it may never be sharp enough to punch through general contentment. So Bush is left trying to argue that Gore is a fraud, his promises hollow. It is as though he is saying, "We both want to save Social Security and give Grandma cheaper drugs and fix the schools, but he's a liar. You can't trust him to get it done, and I'm a leader so you can."

The hope of shredding Gore's credibility may explain Bush's nutty debate debacle. The Bush crew all looked at the tapes of Gore telling Tim Russert and Larry King that he would debate Bush on their shows, and then refusing unless Bush in turn agreed to the traditional Presidential Commission debates. They thought they had the perfect chance to show Gore backing off a big promise and ran an ad implying that Gore was ducking the debates. But however aggrieved the editorial pages, this was not a life-and-death issue for average voters, and if they were paying attention, it was probably to decide that they smelled fear in the Bush camp. Given the vice president's famous appetite for debates, the attack ad didn't ring true. (The Austin team never tested that spot in a focus group, a fact that some campaign officials now regret.) "I'm not sure why we went there," says an adviser, and by week's end, Bush had backed off, agreeing to negotiate with Gore over the commission debates. Another aide is blunter about the cost of the detour: "We've been off message and off stride. We've been talking about debates and reporters instead of issues. It's time to smell the coffee here -- you may have thought we were perfect, but we're not."

Republicans outside Austin are complaining that Bush is too deep in the weeds of his own operation; a major vendor says Bush OKs every piece of direct mail himself. "I thought Al Gore was the one who was writing all the bumper-sticker slogans," said a disgruntled GOP operative, "but it turns out to be W." The narrow funnel to the top slows everything down and suggests the principal has no confidence in his troops -- a bad signal to send everyone else.

Bush himself seems conflicted about the heart of his message. "Reasonable change," the phrase chief strategist Karl Rove uses internally to describe what Bush is selling, is not a particularly revolutionary product. It lets you clean house without tearing it down. When Bush was running symbolically against Bill Clinton, the message seemed to work. Bush was a new kind of Republican -- which meant he wasn't Newt Gingrich, and he wouldn't shut down the government or open the orphanages. And he exuded a freshness, optimism and tolerance that voters found appealing.

But now that voters are comparing Bush with Gore, the case for reasonable change may be harder to make. Gore has detached himself from Clinton, enlisted a high-collar running mate in Joe Lieberman, brought down his negatives to the point that they are lower than Bush's, 29 percent vs. 34 percent, and reached out to swing voters. In fact, Gore has found his own way of making a character appeal. He talks about being "specific" as though it is an act of political heroism: "All this talk that it's a mistake to give out specifics, I think, was premature," Gore says. "This is not about momentum, it's about substance. I think the best substance turns out in the end to be the best politics -- that's a view some see as quaint, but I think it's true." Here Gore is executing a version of the Dick Morris game plan, using issues to gild himself and tar his opponent -- hence the Democrats' ads attacking Bush's health-care record in Texas for leaving too many poor children without coverage. "Gore's ads make Texas look like it's Belize or Bulgaria or someplace where kids live in huts with no roofs and everything's polluted," said a Bush adviser. "They are really hurting us."

Bush will try to get some traction by talking more about reform and stop trying to match Gore promise for promise, on prescription drugs and military pay and education spending. But with his enormous tax cut at the center of his budget, he doesn't have as much room to counterpunch. Reforming anything as vast as Social Security or Medicare or the Pentagon takes money, too, as Americans learned from welfare reform. Gore puts $775 billion into Medicare, Bush $198 billion. Gore allots $115 billion for education, Bush $48 billion. For the environment, Gore offers up $120 billion, Bush just $5 billion. Even in defense spending, Gore's budget is $100 billion, while Bush's is $45 billion. Bush is right to say that by passing a huge tax cut, he lets people decide for themselves whether to give it to the poor or stay home more with the kids or save for a rainy day. But "an individual can't fix schools, they can't clean up the environment, and people know that," counters a Gore senior adviser. "The people I talk to pay 50 percent in taxes, but they are more worried about the schools and environment than they are about taxes."

Finally, even as Gore unveils a new ad about his fight for a patient's bill of rights, the Republicans will ramp up, not abandon, their attacks on his character. In addition to the sarcastic ad about Gore's Buddhist temple fund-raiser, they plan to roll out the "no controlling legal authority" news conference and Gore's defense of Clinton as "one of our greatest presidents" on the day of his impeachment. The ads will then pivot to something Gore is promising now, so that the message will be, If you couldn't trust Gore to tell the truth then, why should you trust him on his policy proposals? Ads comparing Gore's record and rhetoric on education have been filmed; in one, a high school graduate is shown staring at his diploma. The boy reportedly will say to the camera: "I would enjoy it a lot more if I could read it."

There is even talk of reviving the controversial spot Bush himself killed three weeks ago. This is the ad made by RNC image guru Alex Castellanos, which was actually shipped out to 350 TV stations before Bush finally yanked it. One argument was that it was just too nasty; the other was that it was unfair, since it featured a clip of Gore defending Clinton's truthfulness as if it referred to the Lewinsky scandal. The problem was that the interview was from 1994, not 1998, long before anyone had ever heard of the White House intern. But the ad tested so well with focus groups that, according to two officials, the campaign is thinking of just putting some dates on the screen so that no one can accuse the GOP of misleading voters, and running it in battleground states anyway. But a top aide to Bush insisted to TIME that the rumors of its resurrection are "not true."

Now that they've swallowed hard and dug in for a fight, the Bushies are taking some comfort from history: given the fact that they are running against an incumbent in a good economy, they are actually exceeding expectations. "He should be killing us," a top adviser says of Gore. "But he can't do any better than a tiny lead. We're still in very good shape." On the other hand, the Democrats take comfort in more recent history: Gore has already been through three tough presidential campaigns, and Bush, they believe, struggles in rough water. His judgment can falter, his wisecracks can backfire, and the combination looks unready for prime time. As John Raffaelli, a top Democratic consultant put it, "The thing we're learning about old George is that once he gets under pressure, he goes negative quick. The bull---- about changing the tone evaporates when he ain't winning."

Copyright © 2000 Time Inc.


Monday, September 11, 2000


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