BIRMINGHAM, ALA. — Birmingham, Ala.-- One morning the Birmingham newspapers carried a front-page story about Paul Hubbert, the Democratic candidate for governor, assailing President Bush on the tax issue.
Then the next day there was Mr. Hubbert after Mr. Bush again, this time questioning the president's policy in the Persian Gulf. "I think at this point he owes the American people some explanation as to how long we are going to be there and what his long-term plans are, what his intermediate plans are," said Mr. Hubbert. "It appears to now that we're bogged down over there in a situation where nobody knows how long we're going to be. Nobody knows what our goal is."
We may be missing something here, but the whole idea of a Democratic candidate who has been trying to occupy the political center attacking George Bush in a state as conservative as Alabama is a little unusual. As Marty Connors, a Republican professional here, put it, "Either that's very smart or very stupid."
The Hubbert tactic makes some obvious sense when limited to the budget question. Campaigning against incumbent Republican Gov. Guy Hunt, Mr. Hubbert has been positioning himself as a classic populist on issues such as the problems of the aged poor. And that was the string he played in the first assault.
Speaking to a rally in Pell City, Mr. Hubbert said: "The very idea that George Bush and the Republican leadership have the audacity to suggest to senior citizens that they ought to pay more when we're asking millionaires to pay not one red copper penny more in taxes -- we're not going to put up with that in the Democratic Party."
There is considerable evidence in polling data all over the country to justify that approach as smart politics. Surveys show support for Mr. Bush and Republicans in general dropping as they have become perceived as uncommonly interested in protecting the wealthy while writing a new tax plan.
But the Persian Gulf issue is quite different. For one thing, the president still has strong backing for his policy -- although there is some uneasiness about how the voters may feel about a long-term commitment in the Middle East and obvious concern about the danger of losing American lives to protect the oil flow. But some voters also may wonder about a gubernatorial candidate making a case for what Mr. Hubbert called "other alternatives" to what Mr. Bush has done.
In Mr. Hubbert's case, there was no grand design in raising the questions about Mr. Bush. The Democratic candidate said the issue was raised by reporters in the context of the costs of the military operations in the Persian Gulf and his complaint about the unfairness of the tax proposals. "I'm going to back off of that," hesaid the next day, "because I'm not running for president. It was not a purposeful thing on my part."
But the political costs of Mr. Hubbert's little excursion into foreign policy may be higher than he anticipated -- particularly since he turned the focus away from another issue that had just been dumped in his lap. The Guy Hunt campaign had been revealed to have used a television commercial showing a fabricated newspaper headline that read: "Hubbert Kills Hunt's Education Reform Package."
The Hunt campaign protested that this was just a "dramatization" of an accurate characterization of Mr. Hubbert's position. But it was clear the Republicans had been caught with their pants down. And it came at a time when private polls were showing for the first time that more voters blamed Mr. Hunt than Mr. Hubbert for the negative tone of the campaign.
Going into the final days, polls show the contest essentially even, and political professionals on both sides are engaged in their usual game of trying to estimate the turnout.
The consensus seems to be that it is likely to be low, under 1 million, which probably favors Mr. Hubbert because he has a superior on-the-ground organization to turn out his voters.
The X factor here, as it always seems to be, is race. The Hunt campaign has run TV spots showing Mr. Hubbert, the longtime head of the Alabama Education Association, riding in a car with Joe Reed, the black man who has been his principal deputy. Mr. Reed also heads the Alabama Democratic Conference, the leading black political organization in the state, and as such is an obvious target for campaigns against the "special interests."
Mr. Hubbert has tried to position himself on such issues as crime and abortion to avoid being seen as the candidate of the liberals or "the black party." But beating up on George Bush isn't likely to make that any easier.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover are staff writers for The Evening Sun. Their column appears there Monday through Thursday.