Bush sets early pace in run for president

Trailing in polls, Gore seen reacting to GOP front-runner

June 19, 1999|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- If you stood in the crowd at Al Gore's campaign kickoff in Tennessee this week, you might conclude that next year had already arrived.

Gore declared his candidacy by taking some surprising jabs at George W. Bush, something that typically would happen only after both men had secured their parties' nominations. Gore supporters hoisted anti-Bush signs on the Carthage, Tenn., town square, including a huge banner proclaiming: "Gore is a Rocky Top Mountain. George is a Bush."

It is, of course, premature to assume that a Gore-Bush matchup will materialize. The primaries are seven months away, and most Americans are paying little or no attention to the candidates. Still, Gore and Bush are favored to become the nominees, and the dimensions of their potential duel are already becoming clear.

As both men begin running in earnest, they seem to be taking unusually early aim at the general election, and each other, while largely ignoring the opposition in their own parties.

Most striking of all, however, is the degree to which Bush, in his first try at national office, appears to be controlling the pace and thrust of the 2000 campaign.

"A lot of the other candidates are basing their whole campaigns on what Governor Bush is doing," says Howard Opinsky, a spokesman for another Republican presidential hopeful, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Last weekend, several GOP contenders, including Elizabeth Hanford Dole, flew to Iowa to catch any leftover media attention during Bush's first visit to the state.

More surprising, at this preliminary stage, has been the extent to which Gore's campaign is reacting to Bush and to polls that show the Texas governor leading the vice president by 12 points to 15 points.

Gore's formal entry into the presidential race, reportedly timed to follow in the wake of Bush's first campaign swing, bore the Texan's imprint in several ways. For example, Gore's recent emphasis on using private faith-based organizations to aid the poor is very similar to initiatives taken by Bush during his five years as governor.

The vice president delivered a portion of his announcement speech in Spanish, an acknowledgment that Bush, a somewhat more fluent Spanish speaker, poses a greater threat to the Democrats' Hispanic base than any recent Republican presidential contender.

Attacks draw attention

But it was Gore's barely disguised attacks on Bush -- belittling the governor's claim to be a "compassionate conservative" and his lack of foreign policy training -- that drew the most attention. Political professionals were hard-pressed to remember other cases in which a rival from the opposing party, particularly one so new to the national scene, became a focus of an announcement speech by a front-running contender.

Gore supporters called it a smart move.

"By jump-starting the general election, you're sending a message that these are the two candidates who are likely to be running in November of 2000," says David Axelrod, a Chicago-based Democratic consultant and Gore backer. "In a sense, Gore elevates himself in doing that, and it helps in rallying Democrats."

Gore still faces a party challenge of uncertain dimensions from Bill Bradley. The former New Jersey senator has shown rising strength in recent polls, though he still trails Gore by a wide margin. Those same surveys suggest that Gore's connections to Clinton are a considerable drag on his presidential chances.

Bradley adviser Anita Dunn says Gore's tactics in attacking Bush and ignoring Bradley make no difference to the ex-NBA star's campaign.

"Democrats are going to make their decision later in the year, after they've heard from both candidates," she said. "Our campaign is about Bill Bradley taking his vision and his message and who he is to the American people."

Bush, on the other hand, welcomed the attention, saying that the Democrats "must be worried." Added a Bush campaign adviser: "For Gore to be so palpably worried, it just draws attention to [Bush] and enhances the bandwagon effect."

Reversals of form

This week, as both men wooed voters in the early primary states, there were some curious reversals of form.

Bush, often portrayed as shallow on matters of substance, held his own in a full-fledged, presidential-style news conference in New Hampshire. He responded to questions about Kosovo, his tax plan, racial preferences, judicial appointments and immigration.

Gore, who is pitting his own experience against Bush's lack of testing beyond the state level, scheduled no news conferences on his announcement swing, which ended last night in Seattle.

Gore is attempting to build on the successes of the Clinton administration while distancing himself from Clinton's personal misconduct. He calls himself restless to move the country forward, but he may wind up talking more about the past -- and the Bush administration -- than about the former president's son.

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