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Rothenberg One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.

Stuart Rothenberg: For Gore, it's time to get a little desperate

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- To listen to campaign strategists for Vice President Al Gore and some in the media, it's downright outrageous that voters would prefer Texas Gov. George W. Bush's personality to Gore's knowledge of the issues.

Excuse me, but has anybody been watching presidential elections for the last half-century?

Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton may not have been elected only because of their personalities and style, but it would be silly to ignore that part of their appeal.

Eisenhower, the hero, probably knew less about government and domestic public policy than egghead Adlai Stevenson, and Kennedy, whose youthful good looks didn't hurt his message of energy and change, couldn't match Vice President Richard Nixon's experience.

Jimmy Carter may still think that he was elected because of his public policy proposals, but he probably beat Gerald Ford because of Watergate, Ford's pardon of Nixon, and the Georgia governor's reputation for morality and honesty.

And everyone knows that while Ronald Reagan's message of conservatism resonated with voters, even voters who disagreed with him on the issues approved of his presidency and voted for him.

Politicians, reporters and TV producers all spend way too much time talking about specific public policy issues -- and Capitol Hill legislation -- and how they'll play with the voters. The voters who care most about issues are strong partisans. They are already part of each party's base. That means they play relatively little role in who wins presidential elections.

Considering all this, it isn't surprising that Bush is benefiting from his personality and style advantage over Gore. Style always matters, and it matters most when the public is content, neither candidate is promising anything radical, and the parties are at rough parity.

Currently, Gore seems to be trailing Bush by a few points, so he needs to move numbers.

The Vice President will win the election if he succeeds in raising questions about Bush's competence. If voters don't think the Texan can handle the presidency, they won't vote for him, no matter how much they like him.

Alternatively, Gore would need to force voters to reject their instincts and evaluate the candidates primarily on the basis of ideology and issues, whether Social Security, health care or education. Then-Vice President George Bush succeeded in doing that in 1988, Lyndon Johnson did it against Barry Goldwater in 1964, and Richard Nixon did it when he won the presidency in both 1968 and 1972. Issues are particularly important when one candidate is defending positions that are relatively ideologically extreme.

But it is a particularly difficult problem for Gore this time.

Democrats, journalists and TV comedians have been joking about Bush's intellect and dearth of gravitas for months, but so far voters haven't concluded the Texas governor isn't fit for the job. Gore's argument, of course, is that voters haven't really been considering the implications of their decisions, and they will change their vote intentions when they do.

That's a reasonable argument, but would any disinterested observer really say that it is likely? Part of Gore's problem is that the debates may have convinced many voters that Bush could handle the job.

While Gore can close the gap if voters focus on issue distinctions between the candidates, Bush isn't likely to cooperate. The governor has now spent at least the last five months talking about his compassionate conservatism, his commitment to a patient's bill of rights, his support for prescription drug coverage, his efforts to shore up Social Security, his endorsement of trigger locks, and his approach to foreign policy. Everything that Bush has done has been towards neutralizing Gore's advantages on issues.

Late deciders tend to be weak partisans or Independents. They tend to pay less attention to issues. That means they may be more persuadable -- a plus for Gore -- but also more likely to respond to style, a plus for Bush.

Since the Bush-Gore race is still so close, anything could tip the contest one way or the other. The race remains a toss-up. But it's silly for Democrats to moan and groan about style, which always is a factor in presidential elections.

 

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Tuesday, October 24, 2000


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