Victorious but scarred, Bush likely to face rejuvenated Gore

Doubts envelop Texan, no longer Nov. shoo-in

March 08, 2000|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush are emerging from the dust and rubble of the primaries in a relationship markedly different from the one that prevailed when the campaign began last year.

Bush now appears to be on a clear path to the Republican nomination that will be formalized at Philadelphia in July. But the Texas governor no longer qualifies as a man on a white horse who can assure his party that he will regain the White House and reinforce the Republican hold on Congress.

On the contrary, Bush is now so scarred by two months of intense combat with John S. McCain that he is essentially no better than an even bet against Gore. Although he holds a small lead in the most recent opinion polls, the heady days when Bush led Gore by 30 percentage points or more are now a distant and faded memory.

Thus, he has reached the point of nominee-presumptive in the contest against McCain while losing what was his prime political credential, the aura of inevitability that developed around his campaign.

His name and strength in the polls last year made it possible for him to raise about $70 million and gain endorsements from 37 senators, 27 governors and 175 members of the House of Representatives.

Now, however, Bush has raised doubts about his ability to conduct an effective general election campaign. It is no secret among politicians that, whatever they say publicly, most perceptive Democratic professionals are licking their chops at the prospect of running against Bush rather than McCain.

It is also no secret among politicians that, whatever they say publicly, many Republican professionals agree with that assessment.

The collective judgment of Bush in the political community is that he is an attractive candidate who has shown he can learn as he goes and improve as a campaigner. But he has the kind of problems with using the language that can be hard for a presidential candidate to explain.

Quite beyond his problems with syntax, however, the Texas governor has collected some political baggage in his struggle with McCain that may not be easy to shrug off.

Bob Jones episode hurt

The decision to embrace the religious right so enthusiastically, as he did when he rushed from New Hampshire to Bob Jones University in South Carolina, will not be an asset with the moderate Republicans and independents a Republican nominee needs to win a general election.

The other factor in the new political equation for the fall campaign has been the improvement in the position of Gore. As he said last night, the challenge from former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley might have been "a blessing in disguise" for the vice president.

On the offensive

Last summer, Gore appeared to be reeling as Bradley gained in surveys of Democrats. General election matchups showed him menaced by Elizabeth Dole and hapless against Bush. But Gore's campaign righted itself, and the candidate went on the offensive against Bradley with a harsh negative campaign that the former basketball star seemed incapable of handling.

Two other developments strengthened Gore's position as he disposed of Bradley in the Iowa precinct caucuses and then, narrowly, in the New Hampshire primary.

The first was the coalescing behind him of the significant liberal constituencies of the Democratic Party, most notably blacks and organized labor. He also drew strong backing from officeholders at all levels.

The second factor, related to the first, was the apparent willingness of the Democrats choosing sides in primaries to view Gore as a political entity separate from President Clinton. Gore got the best of both worlds, credit for the successes of the administration's past seven years-plus without identification with Clinton's personal lapses.

`Clinton fatigue' wanes

The "Clinton fatigue" that was so obvious in polls early last year faded to the point that it could not be identified in surveys by the time the campaign reached Iowa and New Hampshire.

Gore has not come through the primary wars unscathed. Bush and his strategists have made it plain that they plan to revive their attack on the excesses of the Clinton-Gore campaign in raising money in 1996.

Democrats suggest that Bush is hardly in a position to complain about fat cats, but Gore still must live down a fund-raiser he attended at a Buddhist temple and his remark that "no controlling legal authority" prevented him from making fund-raising phone calls from his office.

Morality issues

Bush also has discovered that running against the moral standards of Bill Clinton can be politically effective, at least in evoking an enthusiastic response from Republicans.

The vice president also has suffered from reinforcing the picture of himself as one who exaggerates his credentials and cuts rhetorical corners. Gore's clumsy boast about his role in the creation of the Internet is the kind of thing that will unquestionably be used in television commercials this year.

Cohesive message lacking

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