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Press Bill Press is co-host of CNN's Crossfire. He is providing exclusive analysis to CNN during the election season.

Bill Press: Seducing the McCainiacs

March 16, 2000
Web posted at: 12:15 p.m. EST (1715 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the real reformer of them all?"

Forget, for a moment, the race for the White House. Now that both Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore have secured their party's nomination, there's a more immediate challenge at hand: the race to win over the supporters of Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Those voters could very well provide the winning margin in what promises to be a close race. Mostly registered independents, plus a bundle of first-time voters, they turned out 4.5 million strong for McCain in the primaries. Their most important issue is campaign reform. And, with McCain now out of the race, they will either stay home or rally behind whichever of the two major candidates genuinely picks up the McCain reform banner.

So far, Al Gore has a big head start.

In fact, watching Bush and Gore over the last week, it appears that Gore wants the McCain vote, but Bush could care less.

Consider: In his Super Tuesday victory speech, Gore made a special appeal to those who worship Teddy Roosevelt. The very next morning, he challenged George Bush to ban all soft money, all independent expenditures and all 30-second commercials in the fall campaign. Instead of TV ads, he proposed a regular series of debates. And, last Sunday, he traveled to Minnesota to meet with Governor Jesse Ventura and talk -- what else? -- campaign reform!

Gore may not win McCain voters, but at least he's left no doubt he wants them and supports their agenda.

Meanwhile, what's George Bush been doing? Nothing. He still rejects McCain's campaign reform plan, still defends soft money as "free speech" and still hides behind his own phony reform proposal which McCain labeled "camouflage" and "a joke". Other than one perfunctory, 60-second telephone conversation, he has had no contact with John McCain.

Not only that. Asked by the New York Times if McCain had raised any new ideas for him or changed his views on campaign reform, Bush replied disdainfully: "No, not really. He didn't change my views."

And this guy seriously thinks he has a chance of appealing to McCain voters?

What's so stupid about that attitude is that Bush has a natural leg up on the McCainiacs, if he would only exploit it.

Let's be honest. If there's one area where Al Gore is vulnerable, it's on campaign reform. Who can forget the White House telephone calls and his laughable phrase "no controlling legal authority"? How many times have we seen Gore among saffron robes at the Buddhist Temple, passing the collection basket? Bush could kill Gore on campaign reform. Instead, by refusing to play, Bush has handed Gore a golden opportunity -- and the vice president is taking full advantage of it.

"I made mistakes," Gore acknowledges. But, he insists, he learned from his mistakes and is now an enthusiastic champion of campaign reform. Cheeky? You bet! But it worked for John McCain. Nobody can match the passion of a repentant sinner. Gore can turn the Buddhist Temple to his advantage, the same way McCain turned the Keating Five scandal to his -- and will! -- as long as Bush ignores the issue.

Is Gore sincere about his conversion? There's only one way to find out: for Bush to call his bluff. Take him up on his offer. Agree to ban all soft money, as a first step to total campaign reform.

Ah, but there's the rub. Bush can never do that because, long before the campaign, he made an unholy promise to Trent Lott and Mitch McConnell that he would never do anything to derail the Republicans' vast soft money machine.

In other words, George W. Bush is locked in against campaign reform. And Al Gore is now fighting for it.


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Thursday, March 16, 2000


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